Category Archives: Updates

Prototype Update, 26 Feb 2017

 Solids System Update:

This video shows RTI International’s Gates Foundation funded toilet running a full-loop on the solid processing side for one of the first times.

The cycle, shown below in the diagram, processes human feces into a burnable material using the heat created by burning an earlier processed batch of feces. Motors, actuators, a whole lot of stainless steel (amongst other materials), Programmable Logic Control and LabVIEW, along with a lot of clever engineering and skilled fabrication have brought the system to a point where the concept has now been more than proven!

Next we move forward with reengineering and improving to reduce thermal losses, reuse extra thermal energy to start powering portions of the system, and trying to achieve a better mass balance in which we are able to dry feces at the same rate that we are able to burn it.

“Do it differently: Toilets are not enough to achieve sanitation, India must reinvent the waste business”

In a recent article in The Times of India, Sunita Narain brings up the tried and true dilemma of how throwing new toilets at a city, without an existing waste treatment infrastructure, is not a valid answer to its poor sanitation problems.

"This is because we often confuse toilets with sanitation. But the fact is that toilets are mere receptacles to receive waste; when we flush or pour water, the waste flows into a piped drain, which could be either connected, or not, to a sewage treatment plant (STP). This STP could be working, or not. In the majority of cases, human excreta (our household waste) is not safely disposed but instead discharged, untreated into the nearest river, lake or a drain."

Indeed! We’ve mentioned multiple times on this very site that simply manufacturing and installing toilets, doesn’t answer the call for better sanitation. In the end, any sanitation solution we create needs a corresponding way to deal with the waste we humans create. Be it, gigantic sewage treatment plants or basic septic tanks, we need a place for our waste go instead of our rivers and streams.

Despite this common sense though, we still need efficient ways to remove our waste and transport it into receptacles safely for treatment. For many countries, retrofitting or building new sewerage systems in towns and cities is disruptive and cost-prohibitive, to the point of impossibility.

So, as Narain wrote so well about, Governments are starting to see the value of working within the existing infrastructure.

"Governments are beginning to realise that yesterday’s system can be re-engineered to work for today and tomorrow. They now recognize the fact that septic tanks are decentralised waste collection systems. Instead of thinking of building an underground sewerage network – that is never built or never completed – it would be best to think of these systems as the future of urban sanitation. After all, we have gone to mobile telephony without the landline. Individual septic tanks could be the way to achieve full sanitation solutions."

It’s important remember: sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Many times you just have to find different ways to use it.

We encourage you to read Sunita Narain’s article. You can get to it by clicking right here.

Prototype Update, 17 Feb 2017

Liquid System Update

Last month we briefly introduced the idea of the “user-day equivalent”. You might be wondering what that means, exactly?

As we develop, deploy, and test our systems, we need a way to compare data we collect in different phases of testing and at different sites in a way that makes sense. In particular, we need a way to compare data that we collect in the laboratory — where we control how much urine and feces are flushed through our system, and measure it all very precisely – and data that we collect from a field site, where we simply log the number of times that users visit the toilet. We have to constantly evaluate (and re-evaluate!) whether the assumptions we make in the laboratory bear out in the real world.

A user-day equivalent is a number we calculate based on an estimate of how much urine and feces the average person produces in a day (roughly 1.5 liters and 130 grams, respectively, if you’re curious). So by adding up how much material we’ve flushed through our laboratory system, we can estimate what that is equivalent to in terms of users (and days) in a working toilet system. So 10 user-day equivalents is an amount of material roughly equal to 1 person using the toilet for 10 days, or 10 people using it for 1 day, or 5 people using it for 2 days… anyway, you get the idea.

When we look at our field site at CEPT University, the math is much easier: we estimate that a typical user visits the toilet 3 times a day. So we just divide the total number of uses logged by 3.

Here’s the fun part: once we do this we can look at data from the lab in North Carolina and the field site and India, and see how they compare. Here are a couple of examples:

Starting on the left, conductivity (you may remember from last time) is a measure of the salts in our process liquid. Most of the salts in our process liquid come from urine. As you can see, the early data points are in really good agreement between the sites, but over time, we see much less conductivity in the liquid from the field site than we do in the lab. The same trend emerges with COD (chemical oxygen demand, right graph). COD is a measure of all the chemical species that consume oxidants, which here are generally nitrogen compounds that again, primarily come from urine.

So what’s going on, here?

Well, the honest answer is that we don’t know – yet. But we do have some ideas. One possibility is that we’ve underestimated the amount of hand wash water that is going into the system at CEPT, which would dilute everything. Another possibility is that our usage assumptions aren’t panning out at this test site: specifically, that users are defecating in the toilet much more often than they are urinating in it. After all, we don’t follow users into the toilet—even we have limits about what we’re willing to do for science! It’s also possible that both of these things are true.

One of the challenges for us in the laboratory going forward is to re-visit our usage assumptions and see if we can reproduce what we see in the field in the lab. Once we are able to do that, we’ll have a better idea about how to improve our system for use in the “real world”.

Prototype Update, 23 Jan 2017

Solids System Update: Holiday Poo!

North Carolina, United States

The last week of December saw a major milestone, as our first batch of feces was dried solely by the combustion of previously-dried feces on the current Beta system set-up in our lab at RTI!

Our feces combustor, engineered by our partners at Colorado State University, is shown running semi-automated; National Instruments’ LabVIEW controls the pressure differential through the system and displays/records temperature data as “fuel” (dried human feces) is manually metered into the combustion chamber using two ball valves as an air-lock.

The heat from combustion is used to dry the human feces applied to the cast-iron automated rotating plate inside the dryer apparatus.

Next, we begin working toward a fully-automated, fully-closed loop in which feces is dried, scraped and ground, then metered into the combustion chamber for burning.

Prototype Update, 6 Jan 2017

Liquid System Update:

North Carolina, United States

Throughout the month of December, the liquid team focused on testing out the new baffle tank design. The new baffle tank is a great success with data showing it improves effluent qualities surrounding social acceptability. We have also gained valuable information on potential system parameters that may be adjusted to further enhance the electrochemical process and effluent qualities. During the month of January the liquid team will focus on exploring and optimizing these parameters

The graphs presented below highlight the effluent differences between the older baffle design (alpha) and the new one (beta 2.0). From the top graph, we can see it takes nearly twice as much material (on a user-day equivalent basis) for the conductivity (which reflects the accumulation of salts in our recycled process liquid) to reach its plateau in the new system. In the bottom graph, the total suspended solids (TSS), a measurement related to the turbidity, or cloudiness of the effluent, are consistently lower with the new baffle design. Both of these improvements are attributable to the superior design of the new baffle system.