A Miracle Machine for Clean Water Is Up and Running. But Who Can Afford It?

Remember that time Bill Gates shared the video of himself drinking water made from feces? He instantly became the butt of many a late-night talk show host’s jokes. Which is unfortunate, because it overshadowed the true gravity of the story Gates was trying to tell by drinking water derived from human waste. And the story isn’t even really about the water.

The water Gates drank was the product of the Janicki omni processor, or JOP. The true purpose of the processor is to make sanitation affordable to the world’s poor. Clean drinking water, along with electricity generation and making ash are simply byproducts of the machine. While some turned the video and the scientific concept into a joke, it’s no laughing matter.  

Some 2 billion people around the world use toilets that aren’t properly drained. Unclean water and poor sanitation are the leading causes of child mortality. By some estimates, this translates into around 1,500 children dying daily from diarrhea. And, by the way, rich-world solutions don’t work in least developed countries (LDCs) for a number of reasons, including lack of infrastructure and lack of funds needed for maintenance. These are just a few of the many reasons why the world needs machines like the JOP, and more organizations like the Gates Foundation that are willing to invest in them.  

Related: The New Coal? How Gates Is Supporting the Reinvention of Fecal Sludge

Here’s how the JOP works: First, it dries fecal waste then burns it. This creates steam, which is driven through the machine’s turbines, producing electricity. In the meantime, the steam produced by drying the fecal waste is condensed and treated to produce potable water. Pretty cool stuff.

In the time that has passed since Gates’s famous gulp of poop-derived water, Bill Gates believes that they have “solved the big engineering challenges,” related to the omni processor, and the JOP has finally launched a pilot program in Dakar, Senegal.

Dakar has a number of water and sanitation problems, not the least of which is that the city produces around 1,500 cubic meters of fecal sludge per day, but only 1,100 cubic meters are collected and processed. The rest is dumped in the ground, on beaches, or in local bodies of water. Of course, there are those that work as latrine pit emptiers, which helps curb waste dumping. However, emptiers typically lose some 50 percent of their income to police harassment, fuel, and repair costs. But there’s good news on this front, as the Gates Foundation is planning to provide financial support for pit emptiers to buy new vehicles and equipment.

So far, the Gates Foundation has remained unusually mum on exactly how much financial backing it gave in support of the JOP; the expected cost of the omniprocessor is currently around $1.5 million. That’s a hefty price tag, and completely out of reach for many communities in poor countries. But all involved parties are working to find a way to drive that price down.

We at IP will be watching how the pilot project in Dakar shakes out to see if operating the JOP in other poor countries is not only feasible, but successful.