Professor given grant for sanitation research





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UC Berkeley professor of environmental engineering Kara Nelson has been awarded a five-year $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for her unconventional research in sanitation and human waste management.

The foundation announced Thursday the 88 new recipients of the bi-annual grant, which began in 2008 through Grand Challenges Explorations - a program that "supports innovative research that has the potential to dramatically improve lives in some of the world's poorest countries." Over 2,500 proposals were submitted from approximately 100 countries to the foundation's sixth round of grant awards from the initiative.

Nelson said she will use the grant money to treat human waste at the point where it is being produced, in an effort to eliminate the amount of contact humans have with fecal pathogens. Nelson's previous research includes controlling pathogens in waste products and also the treatment of drinking water contamination.

"The problem in urban areas in the developing world is that a lot of the waste is stored in pit latrines, or is discharged into open drains. The pit latrines need to be cleaned out manually and then the material is carried somewhere and discharged somewhere where there is high potential of human contact ... there are fecal pathogens everywhere," Nelson said. "My proposal is to treat the waste before anyone has contact with it."

By using ammonia that is naturally present in waste from urine and feces and by raising the pH of the material by adding another agent, Nelson said harmful microorganisms in the waste can be disinfected by the ammonia germicide at the waste's generation. She added that the grant money will allow her to further her research on ammonia disinfection while testing out the feasibility of applying this method in the field - which may include travel to possible field sites in India, Kenya or Ghana.

Nelson said she hopes to work with design partners to develop innovative latrines that incorporate the users' perspective, as well as waste treatment in the design.

"I'm hoping that we can develop something that can be easier to scale up so it can work for large numbers of people," she said.

According to Nelson, the results of her funded research will be used to apply for a second grant through the foundation, which offers the possibility of follow-up grants of up to $1 million for successful projects. Nelson said further funding may allow her to expand her research beyond the disinfection of waste to include exploring the different potential use-values of waste.

"There is actually big potential to harvest the waste and use it, by digesting it anaerobically for biofuel, or to compost it for fertilizer," she said.

Nelson said working at the intersection of environmental sustainability and human health issues has been important to her research since her time as a graduate student. She said it was in graduate school that she recognized the potential value of waste as a resource.

"Human waste was a valuable resource, but the way that most human waste in the world is treated right now, the value of the waste isn't being captured," Nelson said. "Pretty much everywhere I worked in the world, even in California, there is opportunity to improve the sustainability of how we handle human waste."

Tags: BILL & MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION, GRAND CHALLENGES EXPLORATION


Contact Kelsey Clark at [email protected]



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