WEC Projects to test, commercialise off-grid sanitation system

14th September 2021 By: Natasha Odendaal - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

WEC Projects has been selected by the Water Research Commission (WRC), under the South African Sanitation Technology Enterprise Programme (Sastep), to test a new off-grid sanitation system with the intention of commercialising it in South Africa.

The NEWgenerator, which was developed by the University of South Florida (USF), is designed to turn sewage wastewater into clean water, energy and nutrients, providing water for reuse as toilet flushing water, as well as biogas-based energy and nutrient-rich fertiliser.

As an industrial manufacturing partner, WEC Projects aims to commercialise and deploy the technology to rural and informal communities across South Africa.

“This is a particularly exciting system that we predict will help address a number of critical social challenges facing the country including sanitation, access to water, energy independence and improved food production,” said WEC Projects technical director Gunter Rencken.

“A large number of South Africa’s rural and informal communities lack proper infrastructure for water, sanitation and other critical services, relying instead on outdated and unsuitable solutions such as pit or portable toilets.”

According to the company, the system is a compact, portable and modular sewage treatment technology incorporating an anaerobic digester that uses microbes to break down human waste while producing biogas.

Clean water is filtered out, with bacteria, viruses and any remaining solid particles removed, and then disinfected through a chlorination system, while 99% of the water can be recycled for reuse in the sanitation platform, reducing its reliance on the local water supply.

The nutrient-rich treated water can be used as crop fertiliser by local small-scale and informal farmers and the biogas produced can be used for domestic purposes, such as cooking and heating.

“A unique feature of NEWgenerator is that it can run independently of the power grid, using solar power to operate or it can be hooked up to a generator. This makes it particularly suitable for use in South Africa, where the country’s unreliable power grid, prone to load-shedding and unscheduled outages, has had an adverse effect on existing infrastructure and equipment, often leaving even developed urban areas without power or access to water for prolonged periods,” Rencken said.

NEWgenerator was developed by USF civil and environmental engineering Professor Daniel Yeh and his research team with a $2-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through its Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

Development and testing was initiated in India, following which, the team worked alongside the University of KwaZulu-Natal to test its effectiveness on a pilot scale in the eThekwini area.

Rencken explained that WEC Projects was approached by the WRC to help commercialise the system using funds from the WRC’s Sastep programme, owing to WEC Projects’ experience in the area of sewage and water treatment solutions.

A licence agreement with USF for NEWgenerator is now in place.

“The ability to scale up the manufacture and roll out of NEWgenerator locally will not only ensure the country’s ability to deploy it rapidly to where it is most needed but also grow an export market into the Southern Africa Development Community region.”

With a modular and portable design, the system can be installed in a standard shipping container, moved to site and brought on-line with minimal effort, easing logistical problems and ensuring a quick setup.

The system’s first major roll out will be in a large informal settlement on the outskirts of Soweto, in Gauteng, where the community relies mainly on portable toilets which lack the capacity to operate effectively with a large number of users.

The NEWgenerator demonstration plant has been designed to cope with up to 100 users a day with the potential for capacity expansion to meet local requirements.

WEC Projects will continuously monitor and test the system during its use, sampling output and reporting regularly to the WRC and USF teams.

“While NEWgenerator addresses a number of urgent social needs, particularly in rural and informal settlements, it can also be used in other areas. These can include ecotourism, for schools, housing projects and in emergency situations. We are proud to be associated with a project such as NEWgenerator and look forward to its future development and deployment in Africa,” Rencken concluded.