The New Coal? How Gates is Supporting the Reinvention of Fecal Sludge

Remember the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge back in 2011? It involved the Gates Foundation daring researchers around the world to come up with innovative methods for human waste management that were both safe and sustainable. The Challenge has since expanded to India and China.

Now Gates is taking its sanitation work one step further with a $250,000 grant to Pivot Ltd, which is part of Waste Enterprisers Holding. Pivot describes itself as a "start-up waste-to-energy company that converts human waste into solid fuel for cement plants and other industries."

Gross, yes. But also a very cool idea. 

Fecal sludge is exactly what it sounds like. As Waste Enterprisers puts it, it is “the content removed from pit latrines and septic tanks.” The problem isn’t with the liquid waste, it’s with the solids, which require far more maintenance and treatment. The bigger problem is that these solids build up in existing waste treatment facilities, which hinders the systems’ ability to treat the waste. The waste is often removed and shipped to a landfill.

Waste Enterprisers’ business model was initially inspired not by fecal sludge, but by sewage sludge. Sewage sludge is used as fuel for cement plants in some developing countries. The company began developing its own plan based on the sewage-sludge-as-energy concept.

Waste Enterprises began working with the Faecal Management Enterprises Consortium (FaME) and discovered that the solid portion of fecal sludge had a similar energy value to coal. Thus began Waste Enterprisers’ mission, with the simple ethos that “Reinventing fecal sludge as fuel not only provides a safe and sustainable sanitation solution, but it reduces industrial consumption of dirty fossil fuels.”

Talk about win-win!

Bringing the fecal sludge-to-solid fuel concept to scale would be a big step toward safer and more sustainable water and sanitation methods. And while it looks like Waste Enterprises has proven its concept in small numbers, it needs to test its methods on a larger scale if it wants to reach its widespread commercialization goals. The Gates Foundation’s $250,000 grant is meant to help the company do just that.

The Gates grant was awarded to support Waste Enterprisers scale up. The grant will help the company prove its concept on a large scale, which will hopefully lead to the commercialization of fecal sludge-to-solid fuel factories in developing countries and low income urban areas around the world.

Waste Enterprises’ work has already shown promise. Last year, the company produced 9.5 tons of fuel at its Beta GreenHeat factory from fecal sludge. And they also managed to produce the fuel in a sustainable, eco-friendly manner using solar power and low-roof greenhouses.