All’s not well with the world like the movies and motivational quotes would have you believe. Basic sanitation is unavailable to 2.3 billion people worldwide, while 785 million live without safe drinking water.
Back in India, the grass is surely not ‘greener’. McKinsey projected that by 2030, India’s urban population will rise to 590 million, with more people living in cities than villages in at least five biggest states. This will make scarce the most basic resource for survival, water.
Another major challenge would be healthy sanitation systems. For all that we Indians consume, will also be released, except not with the ease and the infrastructure of developed nations. According to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), 77% of sewage generated in India is untreated and dumped in water bodies like lakes, rivers, making it toxic and diseased.
At this point, you’re probably slightly alarmed but comforted at the thought of environmental technologists, eco-conscious philanthropists and green entrepreneurs who would have thought of ingenious solutions to such challenges by now…and you’re right.
One such solution is the Omni Processor technology.
What is Omni Processor technology?
It is a self-sustaining technology that turns human waste into electricity, potable water (and a little ash); quite literally, transforming human excreta into a valuable commodity. The Proof of Concept model was funded and spearheaded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. OP technology was designed to improve sanitation in poor and developing nations. It is a portfolio of technologies that is capable of processing fecal sludge from various sources, hence ‘omni’. Instead of a single trademarked technology, the idea is to use different approaches for community specific needs, such as pyrolysis, supercritical water oxidation, electro-catalytic oxidation, double membrane treatment, combustion, among others.
How does it work?
We have described below a few examples of popular OP technologies used for fecal sludge treatment.
Janicki OP: A combustion based incinerator style plant, this OP burns wet sludge at 100°, separating dry solids and water vapor, which are then incinerated to produce high-pressure steam that powers the OP while producing electricity. Steam is also purified and distilled enough times to make drinkable water.
US-based Sedron Technologies (formerly Janicki Bioenergy), who was commissioned by Gates Foundation, developed a Janicki Omni Processor in 2014 and launched a pilot plant in Dakar, Senegal in 2015. The company is planning to ship their J-OP to commercial markets in the future.
SCWO: Supercritical Water Oxidation technique (notably used by Duke University researchers), completely destroys pathogens in septage, fecal/animal waste, biosolids inside a small shipping container-sized treatment unit which is scalable, eco-friendly and cost-effective.
Organic compounds in wastewater are oxidized at temperature and pressure conditions above the water’s critical point, producing water with minerals that can be used as fertilizer and later distilled to render clean drinking water.
Pyrolysis-based fecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP): This process thermally decomposes sludge at high temperature, creating byproducts like biochar to increase soil fertility and produce water.
The problem of fecal waste disposal
City-dwellers take sanitation as a basic amenity and take waste disposal for granted, unless they see staggering numbers that proclaim otherwise.
A 2018 Landscape Report titled ‘India: Market Insights for the Omni Processor’, yielded following summary:
“While 86% households in urban India have access to individual toilets, only one-thirds of them are connected to a sewerage system.”
“From the waste generated in these sewers, only two-fifth is treated due to very few Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) across India.”
Untreated fecal waste dumped in landfills or water bodies causes diseases like diarrhea, malaria, typhoid fever, among others. India is known for an inhumane practice called ‘manual scavenging’ or manual cleaning of human excretions. Hundreds of manual scavengers die in India each year cleaning sewers. Some sewer cleaners die by ingesting methane in clogged residential septic tanks.
The government was mostly focused on providing toilets to solve the open defecation problem, but now it has started considering Fecal Sludge and Septage Management seriously. Under the Swachh Bharat umbrella, and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), pilot FS treatment plants were built in Devanahalli (Karnataka), Warangal (Telangana), Leh (Ladakh), Wai, Sinnar (Maharashtra), Narsapur (Andhra Pradesh).
Why use Omni Processors?
The Omni Processor technology is a ground breaking solution to recycling fecal waste without the need for sewage systems and can go a long way in aiding the government’s initiative of dealing with fecal sludge in environment-friendly ways. Two private companies in India are at the cutting edge of OP technology, Vadodara’s Ankur Scientific (Ankur OP) and Bangalore’s Tide Technocrats (Tide OP).
Regular sewer networks are centralised, unsustainable and unfeasible financially in developing countries. Omni Processors are essentially innovative, decentralized, scalable, and leave no environmental impact. Capital investment required is less than traditional sewer systems or FSTP set-up.
At Reinvent the Toilet expo in Beijing a few years ago, Bill Gates sipped water distilled from human feces, a feat he has repeated on Jimmy Fallon and Trevor Noah shows as well. He has successfully removed the stigma and disgust around OP generated water even though public perception may not change that easily. The fact of the matter is growing urban areas cannot afford to spend years waiting for FSTP treated water while freshwater availability dwindles due to high demand. FSTP markets are ripe for growth in India in the coming years with 2000 plants being planned in the next five years. Yet there’s a space for Omni Processor technology to fill the gap between the need for clean water and fecal sludge management in the meantime for smaller, private or residential areas. As a matter of fact, they can also be a sustainable addition to government funded FSTPs.
OP technology for housing societies
Residential societies in urban areas often face water shortage and have to pay for individual water tankers when civic bodies reduce water supply. Societies outside of corporation limits pay for water all by themselves.
If a number of residential societies pool together its resources and invest in an Omni Processor, it can indeed pave the way for a truly sustainable future. Janicki OP can cost around $1.5 million with additional operational costs but can pay for itself quickly in terms of providing 86,000 litres per day to be used for around 40,000 people, while producing 100-200 kw electricity per day. Whether your sanitation system is connected to a septic tank or sewer system (which may be linked to a dysfunctional STP that cannot bear the load), urban sprawl and waste is so enormous that it cannot be treated free of cost and you may have to pay extra for sewage cleaning of your building complexes frequently.
Bank loans are available for building STP for residential areas, so you might want to consider investing Rs 10 to 15 lakh in an Omni Processor that will save you monthly water and sewage cleaning bills. Omni Processors don’t require electricity or water and have a 20-year life expectancy, thus they are a more sustainable option than regular STP. They also treat gray water, digested/undigested sewage sludge, biosolids and residential septage.
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