Bringing space age technology to Earth

Designers of the International Space Station (ISS) had to make it self-sustaining because, once aboard, astronauts had no way to get water or discharge sewage and no connection to Earth’s power grids.

Designers of the International Space Station (ISS) had to make it self-sustaining because, once aboard, astronauts had no way to get water or discharge sewage and no connection to Earth’s power grids.

Today, ISS has abundant power, clean water and breathable air at the right temperature and humidity — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Without such careful water recycling, 40,000 pounds of water from Earth would be required each year to supply just four crewmembers.

Bringing that scientific innovation down to Earth has been slow, primarily because we don’t think we need it. We have abundant supplies of fresh water for drinking, agriculture, energy production, recreation and manufacturing the goods we use every day.

Practically everything we use and make requires water and energy. For example, it took more than 2,500 gallons of water to make your jeans, and it took another three bathtubs full of water to grow and process the ingredients for your two-eggs-toast-coffee breakfast this morning.

But finding safe drinking water is becoming a global problem, one that has captured the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The challenges are staggering.

Forty percent of the global population lacks bathrooms and another two billion people use facilities that do not safely dispose of human waste. About 1.5 million children die every year from contaminated food and water. In developing countries, half of all hospitalizations are linked to contaminated water and poor sanitation.

What’s more, all this puts an economic strain on developing countries. Gates reports that, in India, for example, bad sanitation practices cost nearly $54 billion a year, or 6.4 percent of its GDP.

The problem is modern sewage plants are expensive to build and operate. They require electricity from the grid, release water vapor into the atmosphere and often use natural gas to create enough heat to incinerate the wet sludge.

As part of its efforts to eradicate life-threatening diseases worldwide, the Gates Foundation has invested in new technology that converts sewage into energy and safe drinking water — a single process that improves sanitation, creates electricity and produces life-saving drinking water.

Called the OmniProcessor, the technology is being developed by Janicki Bioenergy in Sedro Woolley. Sewage is about 80 percent water and 20 percent biomass, and the biomass contains more than enough energy to sterilize the water. A test plant uses an innovative blend of steam power and water filtration to convert up to 14 tons of sewage a day into potable water and electricity.

Bill Gates is so confident the technology works that he recently drank a glass of water from the OmniProcessor — water that had been raw sewage just minutes earlier. Gates now hopes to take the OmniProcessor to India, Africa and other developing nations, saying that each $1.5 million plant can process sewage for 100,000 people.

Gates is betting the OmniProcessor will transform sewage treatment from a cost center to a profit center. The operators, whether they be local governments or philanthropic entrepreneurs, would charge for the electricity and water produced by Janicki’s new system.

As we have learned from the International Space Station, humans cannot live without water and energy. Worldwide, freshwater demand is rapidly growing; 1.2 billion to 1.7 billion people face water shortages. We need to look at water and energy as the scientists who designed the International Space Station did 15 years ago.

Hopefully, through technology being developed by innovative private companies such as Janicki Bioenergy and funding from private foundations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, space station Earth will have enough energy and safe water for people, agriculture and manufacturing far into the future.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at