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Waste-to-energy: from pit latrines to biogas

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I’ll readily admit that I don’t know nearly enough about the world of sanitation, and I know that I’m not the only one that feels that way. We’ll readily talk in great lengths about which types of food are best to eat, whether or not our produce is organic, or if our animals were humanely slaughtered. But what about the whole, you know, pooping thing?

Maybe this statistic will stick with you as it has since I first read it: some 2.6 billion people in the world lack access to adequate sanitation. These are people who must defecate in bushes or along railroad tracks, or worse, next to their water supply. You can read the WHO/UNICEF report here (PDF).

I would venture an educated guess that many of those same 2.6 billion people also lack access to services that you and I are expect, such as clean and/or reliable energy, which is where the work of two MIT business students come in, and is probably a good starting point for us to explore the world of poop and sanitation here on the blog.

David Auerbach and Ani Vallabhaneni started Sanergy, a company that aims to, among several things, build $200 modular pit latrines (or “sanitation centers”) that are owned and operated by locals in places without adequate sanitation. As people poop, waste can be collected and fed to an anaerobic digester to produce biogas, which can be sold and used to heat and power the very same people who use the latrines. Along the various steps of the process is an opportunity for people to make money.

Anyways, sanitation and waste are topics I would like to explore more. We have written about food several times, but not so much about what happens after our body is done doing its thing.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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