Sedro-Woolley, a slightly Twin Peaks-y logging outpost located about two hours north of Seattle in Skagit County, Washington, is best known for its annual chainsaw carving festival, its Bigfoot sightings and that time when a rogue circus elephant named Tusko ran amok through town in 1922. Now, the roughly 10,500 residents of the small city can add something new to the list of superlatives: the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, once drank their poop out of a Mason jar.
Of course, the disease-eradicating, condom-reinventing Microsoft co-founder didn’t actually drink human excrement — Sedro-Woolley-produced sewage sludge at its finest. He sipped on potable purified poop water that, just a few moments before, looked nothing like the clear liquid you’d expect to come out of your kitchen faucet.
"It's water," the billionaire philanthropist announced, deadpan, to a rapt crowd of onlookers after he took a polite swig of the stuff without grimacing.
The miraculous poo-to-water transformation was made possible by the Omniprocessor, a large machine/small waste treatment plant developed by Janicki Bioenergy (an offshoot of Sedro-Woolley-based Janicki Industries) and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of the foundation’s ongoing mission to bring clean drinking water and safe means of sanitation to developing parts of the world.
You may recall that in 2011, the Gates Foundation launched the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge, a competition that yielded, among other things, a winning solar-power commode designed by students at CalTech. Designed as a low-cost sewage treatment plant, the Omniprocessor was developed to tackle the same problem but on a larger scale.
Although you can watch the informative video above to learn more about exactly how the Omniprocessor works, here’s the gist of it. Human waste (in this case, raw sewage pumped in from a nearby sewage treatment plant) enters the machine via conveyor belt and begins a roughly five-minute process (boiling, burning and filtration, mostly) that generates not only clean drinking water but electricity used to power the machine itself. Any leftover electricity generated through the process is fed back into the power grid. The small amount of solid waste that comes out on the other end is no longer poop but sterile ash that can be used to fertilize crops.
Referring to the Omniprocessor as a “clean repository for human waste,” Gates himself describes the waste-to-water process on his Gates Notes blog:
I watched the piles of feces go up the conveyer belt and drop into a large bin. They made their way through the machine, getting boiled and treated. A few minutes later I took a long taste of the end result: a glass of delicious drinking water. The water tasted as good as any I’ve had out of a bottle. And having studied the engineering behind it, I would happily drink it every day. It’s that safe.
The prototype Omniprocessor in Sedro-Woolley is just the beginning. Born into a local logging dynasty, Janicki Industries founder and CEO Peter Janicki and his crackerjack engineering team have already developed a bigger, badder next-gen Omniprocessor that will be built in Dakar, Senegal, later this year. As Gates explains, that machine will be able to handle the waste of 100,000 people and, from that, produce 86,000 liters of clean water on a daily basis while also generating a net 250 kilowatts of electricity.
If all goes well in Senegal, the Gates Foundation will promote the building of self-powered Omniprocessor facilities in other parts of the world (Gates specifically mentions India) where clean drinking water and modern plumbing is scarce. As Gates notes, poor sanitation claims the lives of upwards of 700,000 children in developing areas every year, usually via drinking water supplies that have been contaminated by human waste. Gates envisions that each Omniprocessor will be built and operated using a micro-entrepreneurial model where local residents would benefit economically from the facilities.
“The processor wouldn’t just keep human waste out of the drinking water; it would turn waste into a commodity with real value in the marketplace. It’s the ultimate example of that old expression: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure," Gates explains.
We'll drink to that.