The author takes more than a little pleasure in this post, announcing to the reader that scientists can now generate electricity from human sewage and grey water (without additional input of energy) at the same time treating it. It has been known for a little over one-hundred years that they could do this with the earth’s soil. Now, therefore, designers and planners of future municipal sewage treatment infrastructure envision their designs as power plants in an addition to being sanitation facilities.
Downstream PtP made reference to an additional process necessary to accomplish this feat with human sewage that was not necessary with just earth’s soil. This extra step is explained in a (mentioned) YouTube video (last paragraph, Page 2), titled and dated, which those readers who want the fullest explanation of this ‘miracle’ are urged to take the time to view.
As the author admits, his ‘mentions’ in past writings concerning future human waste treatments are now perhaps sorely burdening your ‘ears’? My apologies. I’m a plumber and some plumbers worry about such stuff, maybe second only to world health officials.
The planet, now though, has a laboratory to demonstrate a potential ‘lifestyle stoppage’. We may soon see a dense, utility-supplied, major-world metropolis struggle with horrendous public health and infrastructure/lifestyle decline due to insufficient flow of fresh water supply. That does not imply not having enough fresh water to drink, but rather insufficient supply to flush toilets, fill tubs, take showers, clean clothes, and more. (Whoa, what fun life will be then.) “Water is perhaps the most natural vital resource on the planet. It is necessary for human survival and a critical input to our food, manufacturing, and energy systems. It also sustains the ecosystems and climates upon which both our built and natural world rely.” (Cora Kammeyer, Pacific Institute Insights, October 19, 2017: “The World’s Water Challenges (2017)” Note For Thought: Our present sewage/wastewater infrastructure is based upon a past, ample precipitation status quo. That’s changing!
A second admission (confession): as a plumber, whatever transpires is of keen interest (macabre?) to yours truly, and to Dr. Waterheater). However, the author is not mortally/morally defeated by the human nature of humans. Me think’s there’s a glimmer of hope. And that is what this post wants to bring to your attention, in case you were not aware, or conversely, you were a ‘bit anxious: it all has to do with ‘bugs’ (micro) in human waste, and automatic washing machines. (It’s a Whirlpool World.)
The Status Quo
A municipal wastewater/sewage treatment plant uses LOTS of water (and energy), not only to carry what’s arriving 24/7, but to treat it while it’s going through all the settling, straining, aerating and other functions that make the end product eventually “safe” (but not potable) reclaimed water. (This treated water is now the source of fierce competition among cities and counties for ‘further’ treatment which does make it into potable water, in some cases purer than what many communities have for original supply. This present infrastructure requires generous precipitation. Will it continue? It’s very dubious.
There’s also an energy consumption price to pay for this standard of living. According to Kevin Westerling, Editor of Water Online, and Professor of Environmental Engineering at Penn State U: …this service costs most communities “approximately one-third” of their energy bill. And there are those researchers who see future wastewater/sewage treatment infrastructure as power plants. Now, what I next want to recount to you gets really interesting, both chemically and philosophically.
Badlands to Bangor…and Bombs Away
As a child (among four other siblings), in the mid- ‘forties, ours was a family that took pride in its summer car camping vacations, both in the number of states visited, and their respective number of State and National parks enjoyed. (The author recalls that in those days it was also custom to purchase (or get them for free) window decals in the various States and Parks you visited and, plaster them on all the cars windows but the windshield, until your vehicle resembled a traveling Tiffany lamp.) Window decals were The Captain’s (Dad’s) campaign ribbons. This mode of transportation/camping brought its adherents into close contact with nature in all her glory and diversity, including many detours and most of her “bugs”.
In the ‘literature’ we read that the average adult American hosts about 5 lbs. of “bugs” (bacteria) needed for good health.
Now, it’s not without a morsel of regret that I remember how many hundreds of aerosol bombs, of then highly deadly pesticide, my dad, singular handed, applied to the planet in preparation to setting-up camp (and nightly re-applications just before sliding into our sleeping bags). (And pulling the top over our heads when we heard/smelled that assault on ‘the bugs’.) But as society has learned in recent generations, not all bugs are bad, and many do great service to mankind. However, we are now most fortunately (in one area at least), entering a brand new relationship with ‘the bugs’. The facilitator of this revolutionary paradigm is the MFC. No, that’s not the stuff you termites make into cabinets and tops, but rather Microbial Fuel Cells.
It so happens that good ole Mother’s skin (soil, in most places), coupled with the harnessing (think: Christopher Columbus) of the bacteria therein has proven to be ample supply for this magical MFC reaction. The idea surfaced in 1911 as noted in (Water Online, Feb. 12, 2018). We’ll touch upon the mechanics a bit downstream. But, what I can’t wait to tell (to possibly many of you) whom haven’t lately learnt, that, for the first time in human history, mankind is poised to GENERATE ELECTRICITY, directly from our POOP! By coaxing ‘the bugs’ into a mutual annihilation mode, this miracle can be made a 24/7 event; but, only in conjunction with: 1. (one) additional process.
A third admission/confession (volunteered without duress) is: in previous writings, Pete the Plumber admittedly played a lot of hooky from Dr. Louderback’s chemistry classes, and explaining this ‘one extra process’ is best left to someone else: Professor Bruce Logan. Dr. Logan, also of Penn State, has produced a YouTube video titled: ‘Bruce Logan/Microbial Fuel Technologies’, August 20, 2017. (What an amazing amalgam of intellect and personality! PtP wishes he had enough money to just pay him for private conversation.) If you want to know ‘The Straight Poop’ on this topic, watch this video by clicking the following link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1ElYtTAq9A. A search on YouTube for Bruce Logan/Penn State will reveal this among other of his videos.
Now, yours truly foresees a societal ‘left turn’ as drastic as solar energy and heating is having (and has had) on the planet when the MFC revolution comes to fruition. Every month there is more news about advances this MFC process is undergoing. Research at Kaunas University of Technology, Lithuania, just recently shed-light on a method producing a 20 percent efficiency gain. And, the author believes not unlike installing solar on your house and getting hot water and Watts, the richer world will, in the near future, see washing machine sized ‘processors’ (think outside appliances, like heat-pumps, residential HFC (Hydrogen Fuel Cell vaults), water softeners, and soon, at each? dwelling, the MFC ‘vault’.
In San Diego, California, on March 28, 2012, at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, scientists described an innovative device the size of a home washing machine that converts the bacteria in municipal sewage to electricity “…and cleans up the sewage at the same time.”
This ‘Miracle Maytag’ that the (future?) living unit’s human, liquid, and solid waste enters, produces electrical energy, and results in an end-product (a small amount of garden-friendly by-product), which itself will have commercial applications (urban high rise farms?). We are poised to witness a worldwide mega-achievement: generating electricity from our poop without using heat energy, letting ‘the bugs’ do it for us. And, sunlight is not required! How cool is that?
This really neat feat is only in its infancy though, requiring a lot more bucks of investment, but it could prevail just as the Green Revolution arrived in the nick of time. The first objective is to get sewage/wastewater treatment plants to generate enough electricity to power their own requirements. Even when that is accomplished, considering the flow needed for today’s plants to operate, drought can and looks to be considering “pulling the plug”. The $ 64,000.00 Question: Can/will cities be able to effectively and safely process their human waste at individual living units rather than trying to maintain a municipal pond system. Only time will tell. However, global application of this ‘miracle’ would definitely demonstrate a pinnacle awareness achievement of, and conservation of, our most precious resource (fresh water).
Yet, probably only plumbers and Public Health Staff will be fixating on the problem as long as droughts are not too many, too soon. One philosophical viewpoint: the dense, big cities which need this new technology the most can probably generate the financial means to make the transition when existentially challenged. We/us “hay seeds” (Hay Fork, CA) will be watching (nervously), from a safe distance, learning and waiting (and glad we haven’t caved-in Gramp’s old outhouse).
Next To Final Comment
MFC as stated above stands for: microbial fuel cell. Another way of saying it is: biological fuel cell. And, it is an electrochemical process that creates electricity using microbes and bacteria in a way much like Mother does. The first published report that bacteria can do this, with soil, surfaced nearly a hundred years ago. (Search: cellular respiration.) It was discovered that microbes interacting with bacteria produce an electrical current. (Dr. Logan in his videos demonstrates this very elegantly.) In addition, new hi-tech materials, which are themselves in constant evolution, and which are part of the process, are accomplishing big strides in the efficiency factor. This old antique PtP will not see the day but If you keep your ear to the ground you’ll discover a lot of new, exciting advancements ‘coming down the pipe’. (Hopefully enough to allay some of your human near trait: anxiousness.)
Second and Last Bet?
Pray for GEPC. (Generous Eternal Precipitation Cycles); invest in perfume companies; and, have a personalized bucket for each member of the family.
Until Our Paths Cross Again,
Peter Hemp is a San Francisco East Bay residential plumber and plumbing author and former R & D steam vehicle plumber. His hobbies are ocean kayaking and touring the Left Coast by bicycle.
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