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NEWgenerator Bringing Clean Water And Energy to South Africa

A device developed by University of South Florida engineers that turns wastewater into clean water, energy and nutrients will soon be headed to South Africa.

The NEWgenerator uses membrane filtration - similar to a coffee filter - to clean dirty water and convert it for future use.

“You provide the immediate need for sanitation, which a lot of communities still don’t have even in this day and age,” said Robert Bair, a researcher at USF and former engineering graduate student.

The solar-powered generator will be placed in informal settlements, or slums, that do not have proper sanitation systems.

“Slums are kind of the most challenging environments for existing sanitation technology so I’ll love to see these technologies applied to slums or informal housing communities,” said Bair.

Bair conducted the first field test of the NEWgenerator at a south India school for over a year starting in 2016. The device successfully recycled thousands of gallons of water.

In Durban, South Africa, the generator will work alongside a Community Ablution Block (CAB), which is a small facility containing toilets, showers and sinks.

Credit Bethany Hanson / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
The NEWgenerator turns wastewater into energy, nutrients and clean water for future use.

The NEWgenerator aims to recycle water for toilet flushing in the CABs, which would cut down on water demand. It should also provide nutrients for fertilizers that will help local community gardens, creating a potential food source that also can be sold.

The team, led by Bair and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Daniel Yeh, received a $1.14 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bair said that this grant was essential to their work.

“Right now, outside of the Gates Foundation, there really isn’t a whole lot of money to support these new and cutting-edge technologies,” he said.

The NEWgenerator will be sent to Durban in mid-March with a group of four to five USF students who will stay for three weeks to help with the installation.

Lindelani Xaba, a prototype engineer from South Africa, will accompany the students. Xaba has been trained on how the system operates and will stay in Durban for about a year handling the day-to-day operations.

“We have covered a whole lot of issues that may arise,” said Xaba. “The fact that I was here while it was being built out was very nice because it gave me a lot of in-depth knowledge.”

The team is in the process of commercializing and mass-producing the technology.

“I think the ultimate goal is to make our way through this testing phase and get the technology to be really applicable to communities in developing countries that lack reliable electricity grids or don’t have sanitation technologies available to them,” said Bair.

They’ve already set up a start-up company at the Tampa Bay Technology Incubator called Bio Re NEW, Inc. They’re also working with companies in India and China to mass produce the NEWgenerator, and are seeking a similar deal in the U.S.

Editor's Note: A previous reference to the effect the Community Ablution Blocks, or CABs, have on the infrastructure of communities in South Africa has been removed due to a miscommunication of information with USF researchers.

Bethany Hanson is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news reporter for spring 2018.
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