USF researchers develop off grid NEWgenerator to treat waste around globe

2.6 billion people in the world could benefit from a new wastewater treatment technology developed by a University of South Florida research team.

USF Associate Professor of Engineering Daniel Yeh has been researching the technology at the core of the wastewater treatment machine, the NEWgenerator, since 2002; Yeh started developing the current application with a team of students in 2011, when his venture received $100,000 in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Yeh’s project, which has also received funding from the Indian government and won $50,000 from the Cade Museum Prize in 2014, aims to develop a new technology for sanitation and waste treatment in developing countries.

An environmental engineer who received a PhD from Georgia Tech, Yeh explains, “We work on the interface between humans and nature – making sure society has its needs met, but without destroying nature in the process. We want to find solutions that are sustainable, and that protect both human and ecological health.”

Yeh was drawn to working on the technology to turn dirty wastewater into clean water during post-doctoral research at Stanford University, but he notes, “This idea of recycled water is not new. Humans have been doing this for hundreds of years, at least. The trick is determining how to do it safely.”

Using animal or human waste as fertilizer is dangerous because of pathogens that can result in sickness, Yeh says, so reusing wastewater requires a conversion process that eliminates dangerous pathogens. Wastewater treatment plants can recycle reclaimed water on a large scale, but there are few systems that can treat water on a small scale.

The NEWgenerator can. 

Solving world sanitation problems

“There’s a really large problem with sanitation globally: approximately 40 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to liquid sanitation,” explains NEWgenerator technical lead Robert Bair. “A lot of emphasis has been put on providing clean drinking water, but if you don’t treat the back end, you end up contaminating water resources.” 

Existing treatment technologies for wastewater work “if you have a lot of electricity, and a lot of chemicals available,” Bair says. “But if you live in a developing country, or a place where electricity is not as accessible or you have a lot of blackout and brownouts, then the technology that we have currently just doesn’t work very well.”

Bair, who has been working with Yeh for close to four years, majored in International Studies and Environmental Science at USF before beginning a graduate program for Environmental Engineering.

“Our full aim is to create a technology that can be applied in slums,” where basic necessities like space, working electricity and running water are rare, Bair says. “Sanitation use usually gets cut from the equation.” 

The solution: producing a wastewater treatment device or technology that is completely energy independent (no water, power or sewer system required), and also compact.

“We wanted to go a little but beyond the traditional view of viewing waster water as just this really nasty thing you need to get rid of, and really to view it as a renewable resource,” Bair says.

The question became “how can we extract as much good from waste water as possible?”

And that’s when the team came up with the self-sustaining NEWgenerator.

Inside a self-sustaining shipping container

NEW stands for nutrient, energy and water generator. The waste from the e-toilet is routed into an underground sewage tank. The NEWgenerator pulls waste from the tank, treats it biologically (think of a coffee filter, Bair says), and then chlorinates the water, producing water that can be reused for flushing.

The team is working with an India-based company that manufactures wholly automated community toilets, which can serve 100 people per day in poor communities where individual bathrooms are a rarity, to implement the first NEWgenerators.

“By the next day, all the waste water generated by 100 people will be cleaned and ready,” Bair says. “We want to take this whole model of the e-toilet and our NEWgenerator and apply it in any arid place in the world.”

The NEWgenerator module is powered by batteries, a key component that allow the device to remain “off the grid” – completely self-sufficient and not susceptible to blackouts or brownouts that can plague urban slums and developing nations. The batteries are charged by the solar panels installed on top of each shipping container section, or QuadCon.

The NEWgenerator team’s goal is to generate enough energy to take the e-toilet’s functions completely off grid, making the entire unit self-sustaining.

The choice of a shipping container for the NEWgenerator is a deliberate one – put four QuadCons together and they make one shipping container, ready to be sent to any remote corner of the world. 

“We can ship four of them at a time and then spread them out throughout a city,” Bair says. That’s the end goal. They’re very rugged, easy to transport.”

Yeh also envisions the QuadCon serving the military or post-disaster humanitarian relief teams.

“When something bad happens, the next thing that happens in a sanitation crisis,” he says. 

Initial field tests for the NEWgenerator took place at Learning Gate Community School in Tampa.

USF Electrical Engineering undergraduate William Sutton, who attended Jesuit High School in Tampa, began working with Yeh’s team over the summer after replying to a request for a developer of control system architecture. The team knew what they wanted, Sutton says, but “there wasn’t a good way of implementing it in a compact way.”

So Sutton designed and developed a control system, built circuit boards, wrote code, and got the whole system to integrate with an existing platform. 

(“Will is a hacker,” Yeh says.)

The system already allows the team to issue commands like “turn on the pump” or send questions like “how full is the tank?” to QuadCon units via computer or text messaging; Sutton hopes to implement a system to remotely send updates to units.

“It’s fascinating to see a complex system that’s chemical, mechanical and electrical all come together and work harmoniously – and to do its job,” Sutton says. “It’s a machine designed to do a specific thing and it has lots of parts designed to do specific things. To make them all come together, it’s like watching an orchestra play.” 

Sutton, who graduates from USF in May, aims to attend graduate school for electrical engineering, with a focus in embedded systems. 

Creating a global impact, four containers at a time

The University of South Florida (USF) has obtained several patents for the intellectual property behind the NEWgenerator, and as a beta stage of testing approaches, the choice between licensing the idea to companies that are equipped to produce the machines, or developing a startup and “pursuing our vision,” becomes apparent to Yeh.

“We’re making something people find valuable. 2.6 billion people in the world could potentially use this,” Yeh says. “That’s a huge market.”

Developing a startup company comprised of former and current USF students is a possibility, Yeh explains. 

“The whole direction of the university now is innovation, economic development; the Tampa Innovation Alliance is actively looking for companies to finance; and our technology is a clean technology that has global impact.” 

An initial shipment of NEWgenerator QuadCons will arrive in southern India in fall 2015. Bair will follow in early 2016 to oversee operations and collect data on-site for the next year.

“The possibilities are endless,” Bair says. “There are so many environments that experience the same problems with sanitation, so if it’s successful, it could really help to solve a lot of sanitation problems in multiple countries.”
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Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.