Urged on by Bill Gates, this Washington Company Can Turn Waste to Water and Make Sewage Profitable

Janicki Bioenergy’s high-tech waste treatment seems a boon for developing countries. Now comes the hard part: Convincing local municipalities that it’ll work here, too.

This article appears in print in the March 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

It’s not entirely clear even to executives at Janicki Industries, a Sedro-Woolley composite tooling manufacturer primarily serving aerospace, how it came to use its high-tech chops to develop a technology for turning human waste matter into water, energy and fertilizer.

According to Sara VanTassel, president of the subsidiary Janicki Bioenergy, one day in 2011 the company received an email in its generic company inbox from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation asking if the company would be interested in looking for an efficient and inexpensive way to dispose of human waste.

“It was truly a cold call,” says VanTassel. “Our assumption, though we’ve never been able to confirm this, is that someone related to the foundation’s strategy came on a tour through our facilities and saw what we were about — technical development savvy.”

While VanTassel acknowledges that the company’s expertise had “absolutely no correlation” with waste management expertise, she says the Gates Foundation was looking for people who excel at technology development.

For its part, the Gates Foundation was more concerned about a problem that needed solving than trying to apply old methods of dealing with it.

“Diseases caused by poor sanitation kill some 700,000 children every year, and they prevent many more from fully developing mentally and physically,” Bill Gates wrote in a blog post in 2015 when Janicki, with Gates Foundation funding, launched its first test facility, called the Omni Processor, in Sedro-Woolley. “If we can develop safe, affordable ways to get rid of human waste, we can prevent many of those deaths and help more children grow up healthy.”

“We began our work with Janicki with a simple goal: How could a new, technical approach help make safe sanitation affordable for the poor?” says Doulaye Kone, the Gates Foundation’s deputy director for water, sanitation and hygiene. “Janicki has developed an incredibly promising approach that could help expand sanitation solutions in markets where the need is great, but where traditional infrastructure, like a sewer system, is impractical.”

By all accounts, Janicki’s Omni Processor, currently nearing the end of a two-year pilot program in Dakar, Senegal, appears to be a major success that promises to improve sanitation in developing countries while also reducing costs and improving the environment in developed countries.

In principle, the Omni Processor is simple. Biosolids — the output from wastewater treatment plants — go into a dryer, which evaporates moisture in the waste. The dried waste moves to an incinerator, which turns the waste into dry, nontoxic fly ash. 

Sounds like a regular old incinerator, doesn’t it? What makes the Omni Processor different is that nearly all of the inputs and outputs are reusable. The dryer, for example, is powered by steam emitted from the incinerator. Afterward, the steam is condensed, filtered to 99.9 percent purity and then sent for final water treatment to end up as drinking water. Along the way, the steam also drives a generator that provides electricity that can be used for other purposes or sold to a utility. Even the ash that results from incineration is reusable as fertilizer.

“You lose the nitrogen in the combustion process,” says VanTassel. “But the ash would maintain all the phosphorus, all the potassium, all the micronutrients.” VanTassel says ash from the Omni Processor has earned U.S. Department of Agriculture certification as a fertilizer.

“I watched the piles of feces go up the conveyer belt and drop into a large bin,” Gates wrote after touring a prototype of the Omni Processor in 2015. “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 first version of the Omni Processor has operated for more than two years without mishap in Senegal. Meanwhile, Janicki Bioenergy has been testing a new version — the Omni Processor S200 — that has roughly twice the capacity. What’s more, says VanTassel, the S200 is “more efficient, more cost-effective, all of those things.”

The S200 is scheduled to go through factory acceptance testing in Sedro-Woolley this year before being shipped to Africa.

Janicki Bioenergy hasn’t marketed the Omni Processor in the United States, but VanTassel says the technology has a lot to offer American communities and, especially, Washington state communities. Apart from the Omni Processor’s generation of electricity and drinking water — the value of which varies greatly from one geographic area to another — the cost saving realized through disposal of biosolids is particularly enticing for local communities.

Biosolids are often trucked to agricultural areas for use as a fertilizer. But VanTassel says virtually all of the biosolids generated in western Washington have to be trucked to the eastern Washington because regulations forbid use of biosolids where the ground is saturated. With Omni Processor ash, the pharmaceuticals, heavy metals and other elements that taint biosolids have been incinerated. Thus, VanTassel notes, Omni Processor ash can be used in western Washington.

There are also environmental advantages to using Omni Processor ash instead of biosolids for fertilizing. According to VanTassel, when biosolids are applied to a field and start to break down, they release methane.  “The methane that is released in that process is about 20 times greater as a greenhouse gas than the CO2 that we emit from our controlled-combustion process,” she says. “If you just take a pound of biosolids into a field and a pound into our combustion chamber — don’t think about transportation, don’t think about any of those things — we are going to be about 20 times better from a greenhouse gas perspective.”

Vantassel says the technology has other advantages that make it even more attractive to domestic markets than to developing countries.

“Our plan is only successful if you can bring the waste to it, and in many different countries around the world, getting the waste to the plant is not a trivial problem,” she says. “It is really trivial, though, here in Washington state. We’ve already got septic trucks. We’ve got people who haul biosolids from the wastewater-treatment plants.”

VanTassel says Janicki is just beginning to explore local markets. The company’s first thought was to approach municipalities, but VanTassel says it soon found the public sector to be skittish about investing in new technologies.

“Most municipalities are not able to allocate capital budget to non-proven technology,” she says. To her surprise, these communities don’t consider the pilot project in Senegal as sufficient proof.

“If you’re really trying to solve the global sanitation program, I would have thought showing it successfully in one of the most difficult environments in the world would be a plus,” she says. “But municipalities really want to see it working in their exact situation.”

As a result, the company is beginning to explore selling the technology to private-sector entrepreneurs who can market their services to municipalities. “That is the path we are going down in Senegal,” says VanTassel, “and I think we are going to find that that makes more sense in the developed world as well.”

At least part of the public sector, however, is interested. Last June, Washington’s Department of Commerce awarded $283,158 to Janicki Bioenergy to further develop and demonstrate the Omni Processor.

Man On A Mission
Peter Janicki, who founded Janicki Bioenergy in 2014, gave a TEDMED talk in 2015 to describe how he went from reluctant recruit to fervent acolyte in the clean-water movement.

In the talk, Janicki tells of being on a research trip (in West Africa) in 2014 when he became very sick after consuming contaminated food or water. He was seriously ill but recovered. “My resolve to solve this problem,” he says, “became personal.”

He went from thinking “these are the poorest people in the world, this is never going to work, the scale is unimaginable” to believing that keeping sewage out of drinking water worldwide is eminently doable and exceptionally noble. “I’m confident,” Janicki asserts, “that we’re on the verge of a major revolution in world sanitation.” 

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