On the one hand, flushing our waste down the toilet makes a lot of sense — it's a hygienic way of quickly getting the smelly stuff and all its pathogens, heavy metals and pharmaceuticals out of our living spaces. On the other hand, it's crazy. Our feces and urine are nutrient-dense materials packed full of environmentally friendly energy. Every day we use shocking quantities of perfectly good water to get rid of this valuable resource and then we use shocking amounts of energy to clean that water up. There must be a better way to manage all this.
At Georgia Tech, Yongsheng Chen, an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, has an innovative and ingenious plan to flip the script on wastewater. Put simply, his pilot project will deploy next-gen nanotechnology to create a "smart" membrane capable of filtering out the unwanted whatnot (pathogens and other nasty things), leaving the phosphorus and nitrogen beloved by plants. The subsequent clean, nutrient-rich water will irrigate urban hydroponic veggie gardens. In other words, instead of getting cows to fertilize our farms, we'll do it ourselves! Not only that, wastewater releases gases like methane that can be captured and used as an energy source for cooking, heating, cooling or even transport.
Chen's plan is so ingenious he received a fat grant from the feds to make it happen. And given the venue (Georgia Tech) he's not going to be winging it. Every element of the process will be monitored to the nth degree so that the system can be tweaked and optimized easily and efficiently. The goal is to create an affordable system that can be easily adopted by municipalities anywhere and everywhere.