MU engineers reinvent the toilet

The project is part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge."

A team of MU engineers is part of a worldwide project to change sanitation methods for the greater good.

In collaboration with colleagues from Duke University, MU researchers are working to create a more cost-efficient, practical toilet for poverty-stricken regions of the world. It is currently estimated that 2.7 billion people live without proper sanitation.

The project was fueled by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge" that was issued in April. The proposal included a diagram of the foundation's vision, detailing its hopes that an efficient and beneficial sewage system could become a reality.

MU engineers — led by Bill Jacoby, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources — are creating a model that has not only been envisioned to store waste but to convert it into beneficial byproducts such as fuel, clean water and fertilizer. This process is known as supercritical water oxidation.

Doug Hendry, a postdoctoral chemical engineering student, said the process centers around combustion and burning.

“Our model is a combustion reaction in water as opposed to air," Hendry said.

Hendry said he hopes the oxidation's power to convert waste into beneficial substances can bring sanitation to the 2.7 billion that desperately need a change.

The project has been divided into two phases, Hendry said. Phase 1 is currently in progress and will be in effect until June 2014.

“The Mizzou team is operating a continuous supercritical water oxidation unit on a daily basis for experimental purposes to help with design and modeling for a larger scale prototype that will be built at Duke,” Hendry said.

Hendry recently relocated to North Carolina in order to help with the construction of a larger prototype at Duke. He said he still continues to communicate regularly with MU graduate students testing the smaller prototype.

In winter and early spring of 2014, engineers from both schools hope the demonstration unit will be tested in a 20-foot shipping container at a sewage treatment plant near Duke.

If testing proves successful, the teams will begin work on the second phase in the summer of 2014. Phase 2 involves testing the units in developing countries like South Africa, Ghana or India.

Andrew Miller, a graduate student working on the project, said the engineers are fueled by their hope to bring sanitation to the 2.7 billion people that desperately need it.

“Implementation of the system in a developing country is the end goal,” Miller said.

The opportunity to help people is what this is all about, Hendry said.

“I am most excited about taking the technology overseas to underdeveloped countries where sanitation is needed,” Hendry said.

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