Researchers at the University of South Florida have continued to fine tune an off-grid generator that turns waste into renewable resources.
USF Associate Professor of Engineering Daniel Yeh dreamt up the concept while working on his post-doctorate at Stanford University.
Yeh, who became an assistant professor at USF in 2004, shared his vision with his grad students. He told WUSF News that his students latched on, working nonstop on sketches that turned into prototypes.
“I can tell you though the students are on this 24/7,” he told WUSF News. “We email each other until like 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and the next morning at 6, 7, we’re back on it, so I don’t know when the students sleep.”
The “NEW” in NEWgenerator stands for nutrients, energy and water, which the system extracts from the waste.
Yeh explained the NEWgenerator, housed in a shipping container, is “mimicking what nature does very efficiently, but in a very compact, engineered system, so nothing goes to waste and everything is repurposed.”
The researchers behind the NEWgenerator see the system as an answer for underserved communities abroad that lack access to proper sanitation.
“There’s a really large problem with sanitation globally: approximately 40 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to liquid sanitation,” NEWgenerator technical lead Robert Bair told 83 Degrees. “A lot of emphasis has been put on providing clean drinking water, but if you don’t treat the back end, you end up contaminating water resources.”
The team was awarded $200,000 from the government of India to test the system in Trivandrum, where flooding is a major issue for soil-based sanitation systems. According to Bair, the system was a success, handling up to 100 users per day.
For the next testing ground, Yeh and Bair want to take the generator to an arid location.
“What we’re hoping to do next is provide the service to the schools in South Africa, maybe put the system in some of the refugee camps around the world that’s struggling with some of these same issues,” Yeh told Fox 13.
Since power outages tend to be an issue in developing nations, the system runs on solar power.
“Solar panels provide enough to keep everything running. Even in a power outage it can supply enough power to keep the system running until maintenance can come and restore power,” USF researcher Manuel Delgado told Fox 13.
As the team continues to evolve the self-contained system, the hope is that it will become efficient enough to allow for more than just clean water and sanitation.
“People could potentially grow their own food – lettuce crops, any vegetative crops,” USF environmental engineering doctoral student Jorge Calabria told Fox 13.
Currently, the team’s generator on campus has batches of lavender and chrysanthemums growing, so the system is on its way.
“The possibilities are endless,” Bair told 83 Degrees.
The NEWgenerator has caught the science community’s attention, winning awards from the Cade Museum as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Melissa’s career in writing started more than 20 years ago. Today, she lives in South Florida with her husband and two boys.