UMass Amherst Professor Caitlyn Shea Butler, Civil Engineering, has designed and is now field-testing a new “green latrine” that purifies human waste, turning it into compost for farming and generating electricity. Her multipurpose invention is called a “Microbial Fuel Cell Latrine.”
Butler believes her inexpensive green latrine can be deployed throughout places such as rural Africa, transforming the way human waste is treated in areas where sanitation facilities are poor or nonexistent. At the same time, the device can play a key role in preventing waterborne diseases, including diarrhea. “You get a lot out of this system,” says Butler. “The latrine produces electricity. It makes compost. And you protect the ground water source. So you get a lot back for a small investment.”
Butler traveled to Ghana in May 2012 to install a pilot version of her device. Working with graduate students Cynthia Castro and Joe Goodwill, collaborators Mark Henderson and Brad Rogers from Arizona State University, and residents of the small village of Agona Nyakrom, they installed the first working model of her Microbial Fuel Cell Latrine.
She says the pilot model can immediately address two issues faced by the village. First, when human waste leaches into underground water, deadly pathogens that cause waterborne diseases such as diarrhea spread throughout the aquifer. High nitrogen concentrations contained in the waste can also damage healthy water systems as well as cause nitrate poisoning in infants and the elderly. Butler’s microbial latrine prevents that from happening.
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