Clean water for developing nations

The NEWgenerator features a hydroponic system that uses treated water and nutrients to grow plants. 

Most people don’t think about human waste much past the moment their toilet flushes each time, especially since in the U.S., there exists infrastructure that transports waste to separate locations for processing in plants. 

This large-scale process costs money that most developing countries don’t have. However, USF researchers have developed what they think will be a solution to the clean water problem in the developing world. 

Associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Daniel Yeh and his team have built a portable wastewater treatment system that is going to be shipped to India on Oct. 23, a deadline the team is confident it will make. The system is called the NEWgenerator.

The NEWgenerator is built inside a shipping container, making it compact and easy to transport. There are solar panels on the top of the container that provide all the power, something necessary in environments that don’t have large power grids. There is also a hydroponics system on one of the outside walls where plants can be grown using water generated by the device.

The NEWgenerator takes wastewater and converts it into three things: nutrients, energy and water — hence the “NEW” in NEWgenerator, Yeh said. The water is treated so it is safe to use for irrigation and toilets, while the physical waste filters out as nutrients for plants. Methane gas that can be used for energy is trapped in a large bag on top of the generator. 

The project has been in the works for over a decade. In 2002, Yeh worked on anaerobic membrane bioreactor technology while he was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. He felt as though this technology could be used on a global scale to help refine wastewater into clean water.

Yeh came to USF as an associate professor and began additional research. The technological development for the NEWgenerator has been going on for about four years, he said. 

In recent years, Yeh said, the NEWgenerator team has been able to secure funds to build the machine. In 2011, the team received its first grant. This year, it got additional funding from the Indian government. The team completed the NEWgenerator in two months using plans made on a computer program.

After working on the generator for so long, Yeh is happy to see it finally come to life. 

“Seeing everything come together is amazing because there’s nothing like a physical representation of the idea that you can actually touch,” he said. “It’s not just a picture on a computer screen anymore.”

Members of the team include Yeh, undergraduate researchers like Judian Duran, a senior majoring in civil and environmental engineering, and doctoral students such as Robert Bair and Jorge Calabria, both of whom are pursuing a doctorate in environmental engineering. 

The NEWgenerator will remain with Bair in India for a year while it is field-tested. This test, along with other subsequent tests will hopefully, Yeh said, could lead to a product that can be mass-produced.

“I’ve been working with this type of technology for … about four years now, so seeing it going from the lab all the way into something that’s going to be readily applied in the field is really exciting,” Bair said. 

Access to clean water is not as widespread as some think. According to, an international nonprofit that works towards water solutions, one in 10 people lack access to safe water, and one in three people lack access to a toilet. 

In countries such as India, which has experienced a lack of wastewater sanitation, the effects of poor water sanitation can be devastating. 

“Neglected tropical diseases affect over 1 billion people, causing chronic disability and death, primarily among the poorest of the world-the same people who often lack access to even the most basic water and sanitation services,” according to the World Health Organization.

“There’s quite a bit of urgency … with a project like this,” Yeh said. 

The generator could also serve communities in the U.S. after natural disasters. 

He said his team is not the only one working on technologies like the NEWgenerator. Other
companies and universities are trying to develop water sanitation systems that fit different needs and contexts across the globe. Other civil and environmental engineering professors at USF are also doing research in repurposing wastewater, Yeh said. 

“The reason we’re all working on this is that with (approximately) 7 billion people on the planet, you can imagine there’s a lot of waste water generated,” Yeh said. “And if you don’t have a good, sustainable way to deal with that … (it creates) a big environmental issue, a big public health issue, a big resource scarcity issue so recycling waste water into something beneficial is hugely important, I think, for the survival of our planet.” 

The team thinks the NEWgenerator will play an important role in this global mission. 

“Something like this will very likely solve the sanitation needs of developing countries,” Duran said. “These (are) things that we take for granted over here, but not a lot of people have the privilege of treatment like this.”