Researchers at Ghent University (that’s in Belgium) might have discovered an awesome method for making extra power. And it works because humans poop. A lot. And they’ve trained bacteria to eat that poop and create usable power as a byproduct.
The process is largely an extension of existing sewer treatment. Dubbed the “contact-stabilization process,” modern sewage treatment uses a bevy of microorganisms and enzymes to treat incoming waste. That, usually at least, makes it safe to return to the environment or, in some cases, even fit for human consumption.
But researcher Dr. Francis Meerburg at explained that with some modifications, these bacteria could create usable energy.
“We periodically starve the bacteria, in a kind of ‘fasting regimen,’” collaborating Professor Nico Boon said. “Afterward, wastewater is briefly brought into contact with the starved bacteria which are gluttonous and gobble up the organic matter without ingesting all of it. This enables us to harvest the undigested materials for the production of energy and high-quality products. We starve the rest of the bacteria so that they can purify fresh sewage again.”
What makes this process special is that it doesn’t pull any extra energy from the grid. The material in human waste is sufficient to power an entire wastewater treatment plant. That’s a big deal because it means that the whole process is energy neutral (although not quite carbon neutral). People, as you might have suspected, don’t generally… well… digest all of their food. And it’s not too difficult to coax bacteria into finishing the job. When you do, you can generate quite a bit of additional energy — energy that we would have used were our digestive systems more efficient.
This research is still in its earliest stages, but it’s already begun attracting investors, and Meerburg even says that he might move to a position that handles the waste in Washington, D.C.