April 28, 2011

Researcher wins $100,000 Gates Foundation grant

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Simple things kill children in the developing world. Unsanitary water, something normally prevented by massive infrastructure and know-how in this country, is a leading cause of death in isolated, low-income areas around the world.

A researcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, however, has an idea that might make a huge difference, battling this large but simple problem with a potentially equally “simple” and elegant solution.

And today (April 28) he’s getting a boost from one of the world’s leading philanthropic organizations, which seeks out these very kind of ideas to battle global health issues.

James W. Blackburn, professor of mechanical engineering and energy processes in the College of Engineering at SIUC, is getting a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The money will go toward developing a potentially life-saving sanitation system that will use only naturally occurring biochemical processes and wind power to operate.

Blackburn, who developed similar technology for use in mitigating swine waste in an agriculture setting, has started the first phase of his project, which ultimately will include building a sort of pilot plant at Carbondale's northwest wastewater treatment plant. If all goes well during the 18-month initial phase -- and there are still several key questions that need answers -- Blackburn could eventually qualify for a $1 million grant from the foundation. That money would see his system installed for testing in a developing area, such as a rural area of Argentina, where he has already made some inquiries and arrangements.

It’s all aimed at battling acute diarrheal disease, which is caused by poor sanitation and kills an estimated 1.6 million children worldwide every year. The illness, caused mainly by two microbes -- cholera and rotavirus -- can kill a child in days but could be largely prevented by adequate sanitation facilities.

For Blackburn, having a chance to apply his body of research to preventing such a devastating malady is deeply motivating.

“In short, it gives me the chance to make a difference,” he said.

From the mid-1990s to around 2004, Blackburn conducted a large amount of research into designing simple waste-treatment facilities for swine operations. The work was aimed at keeping odors down at such operations by using a technology known as “autothermal thermophilic aerobic digestion.”

In order to treat the waste, the technology basically relies on the same self-heating principle that occurs in a compost pile. In Blackburn’s approach, however, the swine waste was deposited in an extremely well-insulated vessel and mixed with air. As the waste broke down it heated up. The heat -- about 130 degrees Fahrenheit -- killed the “bad” disease- and odor-causing bacteria over time while allowing the “good” bacteria that broke down the waste to thrive. What came out was a good fertilizer that was “cleaner than dirt” in terms of biosafety, as well as some leftover heat that could be used in other agriculture applications.

The swine waste research proved absolutely critical in laying the groundwork for this latest research, and may end up playing an important role in developing a new life-saving technology. In the swine waste research, however, Blackburn’s system had the benefit of using the U.S. infrastructure -- robust power grids, plenty of water and other technology. Power to drive fans that mix air into the waste is crucial to the system’s function, and its biggest cost.

“When we did that, we had three-phase electricity, we had controlled motors, we had temperature control on everything,” he said. “It was a U.S. technology-level effort.”

But such infrastructure isn’t available in rural areas of developing nations. So Blackburn had to find another way to make the system run using only existing, natural sources of power. He looked no further than the air itself for the answer.

Doing some research on the Internet, Blackburn found a U.S. windmill manufacturer specializing in harnessing the wind to aerate aquaculture ponds. This particular company’s technology uses the turning windmill blades to compress common air shocks -- like the ones found on every semi truck driving on the road -- in order to pump air into the ponds. Blackburn then envisioned mating such simple “green” technology with his existing sanitation concepts to provide a freestanding, self-contained sanitation system that needs no infrastructure to operate.

Concept in hand, Blackburn applied for a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which counts reducing extreme poverty and disease in the developing world among its goals. The foundation encourages developing technologies that provide proven results at a low cost using little or no energy.

Today, Blackburn will be one of 85 researchers to receive a Grand Challenges Explorations grant, which funds scientists and researchers all over the world as they explore groundbreaking ideas aimed at solving persistent global health and development challenges.

The first phase of the project will involve building a test facility that will work with sludge from the local sewage system. Blackburn and his students (at least one graduate student and one undergraduate student are involved so far) have many questions to answer as they perfect the system’s design. They must find out how much air the windmill system can move, for instance, as well as specific environmental factors, such as temperature extremes. They also must identify the differences in how human waste reacts in the system, as opposed to swine waste.

In designing the system, they also will make great use of some exhaustive wind data collected at Southern Illinois Airport by Justin Harrell, an electrical engineer in Plant and Service Operations at SIUC.

“Were going to take a crack at making a design with the data we have,” Blackburn said.

If the concept proves itself, Blackburn plans to apply for a second, much larger grant from the foundation -- $1 million -- that will see an operating prototype put into use in a developing country.

Blackburn is excited about the possibilities and the chance to make a difference.

“The beauty of this is its simplicity,” he said. “As conceived right now it is completely green. The wind generates the air and the waste material and microorganisms generate the heat. It could make a real difference in people’s lives.”