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From Poop to Potable (gatesnotes.com)
246 points by mgalka on Jan 6, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

Singapore implemented a system a few years ago called NEWater [1]. It's a little different from the one in this article: NEWater centrally collects waste water and filters it until it is drinkable. No burning, no electricity generation (rather, NEWater consumes electricity). But it shows that not only will many people use or even drink such water, they will even go on tours of the plant where it is made [2].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NEWater

[2] http://www.pub.gov.sg/water/newater/visitors/Pages/default.a...

This technology is so cool and so crazy that I wonder if it takes a ton of education to be comfortable with the idea that it works. I would guess these guys would have better mileage selling the product to environmentalists in California than going directly to third world locations. Let America be the bleeding edge for stuff this advanced - "eat our own cooking", to use a choice phrase. We are already consuming much of the world's resources - we can be a model for how to do with less, rather than asking the other guy to start.

I read a disturbing article on Bloomberg last year about toilets - India has a project to build toilets and try to get villagers to use them, but they won't. Bill Gates says the world doesn't have the resources to build toilets and plumbing - perhaps he is worried about a second order problem - there might not be the desire, or education is so backwards that we need to solve that first.


I still can't get this line out of my head:

"About 800,000 Indians worked as feces removers in 2008, often carrying excrement in baskets on their heads, an occupation that causes them to be excluded from parts of society."

Imagine almost a million people carrying shit in baskets on their heads.

I grew up in Orange County CA which was an early adaptor of water reclamation technology. Every kid in the county took at least one field trips to the water reclamation facility in elementary school. Typically the field trip would be grouped with classroom lessons on the hydrological cycle, chemistry, and ecology. Water reclamation always seemed like the good/obvious thing to do. It wasn't until college that I realized the rest of the US was not as familiar or comfortable with water reclamation.

That article is amazing, and an eye opener. I did not know more than half of the things it contains, truly amazing. It is not only education or economics (feces removers make a living), but customs, and customs are hard to change. Very hard.

Thank you for sharing.

One thing that really blew me away was my brother talking about his time working in Western Australia, and when he was in a bar bathroom there an Aborigine came in, didn't know what to do, so took a shit in the corner of the room.

When you're not used to something, your actions will seem strange, but toilet training a kid isn't easy, so what seems natural to us now, really wasn't too natural at one time.

No, that's not the reason. I have come across many rural towns in Australia where business owners will not let Aborigines use the toilets, or demand a fee. That is why.

I worked an internship where we were testing 'toilet to tap' in south florida. For the most part it was effective and not too price with RO (Reverse Osmosis) + MBR (Memebrane Bioreactor) but the hardest problem (lol) was Viagra, quite literally. Getting pharmaceuticals out took so much energy with the process that the economics of it just weren't attractive enough.

How do they remove Voc's from the water? Does it need a carbon filter? Does it remove leftover medications found in feces?

LA has a bunch of info about how their reclamation plants operate:


If I understand correctly, the linked plant incinerates the solids at high temperatures (which should destroy most medicines).

The incinerator runs at 1000 degrees Celsius, hot enough to melt glass, many metals, and certainly hot enough to completely burn up any organics.

Yeah that would be my first question. Hormones(like the ones used for birth control) frequently fail to be filtered out by regular sewage plants and have an effect on the environment. I wonder if this would deal with them too?

A simple gravity-fed, activated charcoal filled pipe with a germicidal UV LED final stage can remove and destroy everything, AFAICT. (I searched: ultraviolet hormones water purification.) I found some good guides searching, water carbon filter instructables. Sand and rock prefilters may also be important depending on sizes of filtration targets.

We should also note: if we want these technologies, we need to develop and deploy them by and for ourselves. This man will only lift a finger for humanity if it brings his hand closer to our necks.

Then please spend few billion dollars of your own money, or try to raise that much if you feel inclined to do so, while I support the man who is already spending money on those issues instead of complaining on HN......you might think whatever you want about Gates, but the money he is spending is helping people. Period.

Maybe you are too young to remember how his empire behaves toward people who help themselves. Look into his past if you want to understand what he values.

Pointing out a solution that anyone can build for less than a quarter of a day's worth of work should give you some indication about what's possible without extravagant numbers of currency units extracted from people through lies, manipulations, and other self-degrading acts.

Hopefully, this site, being for hackers, is where we can dismantle our broken systems and build sustainable ones in their place. Ideologies are systems too, just like water purifiers.

"Look into his past if you want to understand what he values."

Jesus, I held some views 2 years ago that I wouldn't identify with now, and you want to look at what he did 20 years ago and say he still has the same values?

And I am all up for dismantling broken systems,but there is nothing broken about him spending his fortune on helping the poor. If you can build things like this in a quarter of a day......have you considered helping out yourself? I mean if you went to India yourself you could be building over a thousand purifiers per year, that should help, no?

"The tiger cannot change its stripes." (One can't change one's essential nature.) More importantly, a guise of philanthropy is an understandably effective front for profoundly immoral conduct.

Without going into detail, if you look underneath thin, shiny, white veneers of people with exploitative, corrupt histories, you'll find worse in their present day actions. Today, a fortune can be useful for "shaping public opinion". A thoughtful person with a good memory can see past a fake smile and a Blah Blah Foundation name by reading about what is happening in this world through reports by self-directed journalists who work for reasons beyond currency units.

Yes, I am a helper. And, I do appreciate your push to do more and to ground this discussion in practicalities. People around our planet need water purification today; and we may need simple, effective tools as well if winds shift.

Bill Gates has essentially "won the game" of capitalism.

He has spent time as "the richest man in the world".

There's nothing else he can do in that sphere.

Like many uber-rich men before him, he's spending his later years giving money away to help mankind.

Personally, I suspect that as people get older and start thinking of their own mortality, some people want to make sure that when they step into the great unknowable beyond, they do so with some good deeds under their belts.

Call it Heaven, Valhalla, Stovokor, Shangri La or whatever else you like. He can't take it with him and if it makes him feel like it's giving him a chance to get in by helping the needy, I say good for him.

His financial resources give him the ability to help more people than 99.99999% of us. I won't automatically ascribe nefarious motives to him doing so.

> Without going into detail, if you look underneath thin, shiny, white veneers of people with exploitative, corrupt histories, you'll find worse in their present day actions.

I would be more likely to believe you if you did go into detail. What exactly has Gates done in the past year or so that you object to? Or two years, or any reasonable definition of "present day"?

These show that the Gates Foundation is 99% invested in Coca Cola and Walmart, and the remaining 1% in minor investments in fast food, energy, and private prisons.

If we held things like that against people, we'd have to hate every person alive, every company ever formed, and most charitable/non-profit organizations, because way more than 1% of our everyone's voluntary income and/or spending comes from or goes toward companies like that.

Not the OP but I really dislike what he's doing in the public school sector.

You're making your argument out of innuendo and rhetorical flourish, which can be used to argue for almost any position.

You will have more luck here speaking directly and to the facts, for example: "This year Bill Gates did X which is bad for reason Y."

It would be interesting to see the Omniprocessor used to treat animal waste from factory farms in the US. They are a significant source of multiple forms of pollution in the states and contribute to some nasty algae blooms.

I also wonder how the heavy metals in the solid waste can be or are mitigated.

That is an interesting idea. Putting one of these plants on a dairy farm for instance could cut down on waste significantly. The machine would take the animal byproducts and provide water and electricity that could in turn be used to power the farm and hydrate the animals. It could close the waste cycle quite a bit.

That is an interesting idea. Putting one of these plants on a dairy farm for instance could cut down on waste significantly. The machine would take the animal byproducts and provide water and electricity that could in turn be used to power the farm and hydrate the animals. It could close the waste cycle quite a bit.

That is an interesting idea. Putting one of these plants on a dairy farm for instance could cut down on waste significantly. The machine would take the animal byproducts and provide water and electricity that could in turn be used to power the farm and hydrate the animals. It could close the waste cycle quite a bit.

That is an interesting idea. Putting one of these plants on a dairy farm for instance could cut down on waste significantly. The machine would take the animal byproducts and provide water and electricity that could in turn be used to power the farm and hydrate the animals. It could close the waste cycle quite a bit.

Could such a system exist on the ISS at a miniature scale? Obviously a candidate for the Mars journey and settlement. Processing and incinerating shit for rich and poor.

Makes you wonder how sewage treatment could one day hold massive profits.

For extrasolar travel, efficient reuse of sewage would be a requirement.

I love pilot plant proof of concepts. The video didn't give any numbers but this pdf has a bit more information: http://wastewaterinfo.asia/sites/default/files/downloads/S6-...

Thanks. Did anyone see an initial CapEx budget range? Also, OpEx ranges for ongoing lifecycle maintenance by year?

The Omniprocessor sounds a lot like the Zimmerman wet oxidation process, which involves oxidizing sewage at high temperature inside a pressure vessel. The process is exothermic, so apart from the energy cost to get it started, you don't have to input more energy. What you get is pure water mixed with mineral ash, which is suitable for use in fertilizer. The process also tends to demolish most toxic chemicals, though it can't do anything with substances like heavy metals. (I read about this in Colonies in Space by T.A. Heppenheimer in the late 1970's, when my dad brought back that book as a gift for me from a trip to New York.)

If the Omniprocessor can accomplish the same thing without high pressure hardware, it would indeed be an advance. The Zimmerman wet oxidation process dates from the mid 20th century.

"Through the ingenious use of a steam engine, it produces more than enough energy to burn the next batch of waste. In other words, it powers itself, with electricity to spare."

Score. We should have the park service install these systems near campgrounds to provide revenue neutral services to the campers. I have this idea of electric "trucks" driving to the camp grounds, swapping out the current waste bucket at the toilets for a fresh one, then driving back to process it and recharge.

> revenue neutral services

Just because they don't require power doesn't make then revenue neutral... You still have to consider things like maintenance (which includes keeping someone on-call to deal with the maintenance issues, whether on-payroll over via service contract).

The article pointed out all of the ways these things actually generate more value than they consume. They create water, they create electricity, and they dispose of sewage. The park service pays for water, the park service pays for sewage removal, and it pays for electricity (somewhat, gas for vehicles more commonly).

So the budgetary exercise to run here is to take the cost of running the septic system as it is today, and the cost of running it using one of these gizmos and trying to exploit its benefits, and then doing a lifetime cost comparison to compute the internal rate of return on the park service funds.

I note that this is the first sewage treatment system that I've read about that actually provides net energy output. Energy consumption is usually the 'hidden cost' of most of these systems. Or water costs. This produces excess energy and water, so someone in the park service should run the numbers.

This technology seems almost too good to be true. It's simple, it's deployable, it's self-sufficient. What kind of emissions does this produce? It says they're within U.S. standards, but is that a high standard? How can it burn at such high temperatures without some additional fuel source? While this technology is incredible (and important for developing countries), how much of what they're disclosing about it is true and what damage might it do in the long term?

In case anyone missed how NYC deals with it:


It will be interesting to see if this works in implementation.

I remember when I was younger the UN Dropped pink bottles of food to the Masai.

The Masai men didn't like the feminine implication and refused to consume.

Will be curious to know how this is marketed to the people.

why would the masai consider "pink" a girl color? isn't that a western cliché?

Wikipedia suggests that pink clothing, even with flowers, is not shunned by warrior male Massai.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maasai_people (the clothing section).

I do know that food-aid packages had to change colour because they were the same yellow colour as bomblets dropped in cluster bombs, and these were killing children.


> General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressing the similarity between food aid packages and cluster bombs said, "It is unfortunate that the cluster bombs - the unexploded ones - are the same color as the food packets."

> "We have dropped flyers that show the pictures in the proper language explaining why you want to go to one and you don't want to go to the other. We hope that helps."

(That's not satire. He really said that.)



Food aid packages changed to a sort of pink colour.

Hard to say. Studies like what color means to a people are really hard problems. It used to be in the Victorian age that red was manliness and blue was womanliness. That obviously switched for our culture.

This http://www.empower-yourself-with-color-psychology.com/cultur... has a good description of 'emotional' colors when viewed around the world.

I'm less worried about poop than I am about drugs—someone's taking chemo, and all of a sudden so are you (at a fraction the scale, but still).

"Hey Bill, eat shit!" - FOSS enthusiast "Ok I will, using proprietary technology!" - Bill G

Bill gates is surely making a big difference in the world. Probably more than he did with windows.

I smiled when I thought about how homeopathy advocates would view this.

Holy, uh,...

The true added value of the price of a Windows license

That's an interesting point. Assuming that the Windows monopoly imposed hidden costs on the public in the First World, to what extent does Gates' philanthropy offset those costs? If it hadn't been funneled to Gates (and eventually, his foundation), where would it have been used? If the public had known during the antitrust "Micro$oft" era that Gates would donate most of his fortune to fighting disease in the third world, would attitudes have been different?

Unfortunately, I don't think it's possible to know the answers to these questions, but it's an interesting door to open.

Assuming Windows instead generated gains of historic proportion to the public in the first world, by consolidating a fractured ecosystem down to a dominant standard, helping to generate mass public adoption of computing, and in doing so driving productivity through the roof, then what Gates is doing is still one of the greatest things any human has ever done.

People often assume that if it weren't for Windows, something better would have existed in its place. I regard that as a fantasy. Windows was 85% good enough, cheap enough, and easy enough to use for its time. There's a perpetual and immense bias against Windows in hacker circles, but that says nothing of the non-hacker users that voluntarily made Windows successful. Microsoft didn't wake up one day with a magic monopoly, users voluntarily chose their software over other options for a decade before their monopoly position was finally in place.


Microsoft is criticized for not being innovators, instead just regurgitating ideas pioneered by someone else. There's truth in this criticism, but we can also view it differently. Microsoft's success was in figuring out how to commoditize the bleeding edge tech.

For example, I remember early in my career the industry trying to argue out CORBA standards, something that never achieved any widespread acceptance because the perfect solution they were after was endlessly being debated, and so complex. But Microsoft cut through that Gordian Knot, and put out their own DCOM technology. DCOM didn't achieve all the goals of CORBA - not by a long shot - but it put a viable object brokering technology into the hands of every developer, a fundamental requirement that the CORBA folks couldn't achieve.

Having lived through the computing renaissance of the '80s (that ended with Microsoft dominance through the '90s and 00's), I do not assume that something better would have come along.

Early 80s were a mess, with tens of competing hardware/os combinations (e.g. in 1985, you had C64, Spectrum, QL, BBC B+, AppleII, MSX, CPC664, Elan, Oric, Dragon, PC-XT, Lisa, Mac, Amiga, TI-99/4A, Atari {ST,XL,XE} and a few others I probably forgot or ever knew). Each of these was usable computer with its own ecosystem, and they were entirely incompatible with each other. Just like in the early 20th century, there were over a hundred car manufacturers.

Consolidation was imminent. But consolidating to a single vendor (Microsoft), I believe, was bad for the market. Three or four hw/os combinations for home computers would have been much better overall. E.g. the Amiga in 1985 had better sound and graphics than the majority of PCs in 1993. It also had a functional multitasking OS that worked better with 512KB of ram in 1985 than Windows did with 4MB of ram in 1992.

With microsoft becoming a single standard, there was no pressure to become better. And contrary to what some people here think, microsoft did NOT win the war fairly. e.g. Users did not choose BeOS because microsoft strongarmed PC makers into not including BeOS.

"users voluntarily chose their software" - or maybe not, which is what the antitrust proceedings were all about.

It seems unlikely that how charitable the company or person you're buying from would have a meaningful impact on consumer decisions. If that were so Newman's Own or similar companies would dominate over other food brands.

Downvoted. Nevertheless, it's a an important issue to consider. Not less important than other aspects of the technical OS features or corporate issues of Apple/Google/MS/Amazon etc which are frequently discussed here.

A big issue worth watching: AOL, the largest pro net neutrality spender, could be gobbled up by one of the largest net neutrality opponents.

Can you give me a proper citation on AOL spending the most money on net neutrality? Best I could find was most money spent on lobbyists but there is more to net neutrality than directly lobbying Congress, yeah? I'd say this report https://www.google.com/get/videoqualityreport/ costs money...

Rainwater arrives on location, cost-free, and pure && You can turn poop into valuable manure through composting :: 0 fuel costs, 0 waste, 0 overly complex machines with 0 "exciting business models".

It doesn't everywhere, and not reliably. You might not be aware that the US west coast is looking at a possible megadrought.

Your approach is fine for a rural compound, but doesn't scale for urban environments.

Last month there was a record rainfall..... 6-10 inches in urban areas.

Perhaps these pieces of wisdom could offer some guide:

"When it rains it pours"

"Get it while the gettin' is good."

"Waste not, want not."

To me, rainwater capture can apply anywhere with a roof, a sky, and a mind to build cisterns.

California already has a massive system of rain water capture and extra-large cisterns we call reservoirs. The smaller the cistern the more expensive per gallon it is.

To me, you're rather out of touch. California depends upon the snowpack for a significant amount of its water supply -- and it ain't looking too good: http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cdecapp/snowapp/sweq.action

Last month there was a record rainfall.....

As that fitting expression goes, "when it rains it pours".

As another fitting expression goes, "get it while the gettin' is good."

And yet another piece of wisdom, "waste not, want not."

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