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From Feces to Fuel: 3 MIT Students Want to Turn Poop Into Energy

“We will pay people to poop in our toilets,” is not something you hear an entrepreneur say while talking about their go-to-market strategy. But then again, Andrew Tsang, Hannah Hoffmann and Islam Genina are not building a conventional company.

This MIT student trio wants to build a power plant fueled by human waste. Their company Insanerator, housed at the MIT D-Lab, which designs practical solutions to global poverty challenges, is also part of Cleantech Open’s 2018 business acceleration program.

A play on the word, incinerator, which is an apparatus for burning waste material, especially industrial waste — Insanerator burns human feces to generate electricity and purify water in areas where access to basic sanitation is a luxury.

The idea came about when the trio met while taking a water sanitation and hygiene class at MIT’s D-Lab. Andrew Tsang, who comes from a systems engineering background thought about building an incinerator for human waste. “Unsafe handling of human waste in some countries is very common,” said Tsang. “In some countries like Guyana, raw sewage is dumped in the river or ocean without treatment.” 

“This [sewage dumping] problem is very common in Egypt,” Genina chimed in. “Fish in the surrounding water bodies in Egypt is unfit for human consumption.”

Generating biogas, a renewable source of energy, is not uncommon — although the use of biogas as fuel in the U.S. is catching on slowly, countries like Brazil, China and India have been using biogas in industrial and transport sector for a while. But biogas reactors can be expensive ($500,000 in one case) and not easy to ship, compared to Insanerator’s container which can be purchased for $150,000.

Image Courtesy: Insanerator.com

This is where Insanerator’s story becomes a testimonial for diversity breeding creativity.

Genina had worked on building low-cost methane gas generation units from animal waste in Egypt. Tsang had worked as a mechanical design engineer at Rockwell Automation and Hannah Hoffmann had built a solar concentrator for drying human waste. The trio saw an opportunity to fuse this diverse expertise together to build Insanerator — a power plant, housed within a shipping container that can be transported and installed easily at refugee camps, and places with limited access to sanitation facilities.

The team’s goal is to create a self-sustaining sanitation product — the shipping container will be complete with a drying, combustion and an electricity generation chamber that can be easily transported to areas in need. And what’s the end product? “A local microgrid that can charge cell phones, battery packs, maybe even a couple of cell towers,” Tsang said. 

The trio’s first challenge in this quest is to get people to use the toilets — “In open defecation, poop is lost,” Tsang said, “We want to partner with people building cheap toilets so we can collect poop.” So in order to do that, people will be paid to poop in these toilets and locals will be hired to evacuate and ship waste to the site for drying.

Image Courtesy: Insanerator.com

The team is in talks with aid organizations like UN Operations and Oxfam to possibly earmark sites, iterate on designs for specific sites and then implement them. For example, the team is talking to Oxfam about the Rohingya crisis.

Insanerator has seed funding from MIT Sandbox and startup competitions. It’s first launch market will be India where the team hopes to install a fully-functional container within the next year.

The timeline is not unreasonable for a lofty goal: “We want to purify water and generate electricity with poop.”

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