Recently, you may have watched an episode of The Tonight Show with its host, Jimmy Fallon, interviewing the co-founder of Microsoft, generous philanthropist and household name, Bill Gates. The topic of conversation was an unexpected one—poop water. Though the name sounds repulsive, the fluid in question is anything but. The poop water is actually clean drinking water produced by a machine called the Omni Processor. Gates introduced Fallon to this new piece of technology that takes sewer sludge through a series of processes to create clean drinking water. The interview ended with Fallon and Gates drinking from two different glasses of water, one filled with the “poop water” and the other filled with bottled water. Fallon had to guess which water was in his glass, and was surprised to find out Gates had rigged the challenge by putting the water produced by the Omni Processor in both. Fallon was forced to admit that the water tasted quite good!
Now where exactly did this machine come from, and what does it have to do with a local woman living in Palmer, Alaska? For me, the story began in September of 1999 when my best friend Shawn VanTassel and I were strolling through the Alaska State Fair. As we passed through the food section near the purple gate, Shawn stopped abruptly after seeing a familiar face working at Angel’s Empanadas. He pointed over to a blonde girl at the booth and said in a very matter of fact way, “I am going to marry that girl someday.” I would later learn her name was Sara Sakis.
I chuckled at such a bold statement asking, “Do you know her?”
“Yeah, she is on my cross-country team,” he said.
“Have you talked to her?”
Okay, I thought to myself, though his words stuck in my mind. While it was just one conversation of thousands he and I had, I remembered that one.
Four years later, almost to the day, I was nervously giving a best man’s speech. With shaky hands spilling sparkling apple cider over my rented tux, I repeated the story of Shawn’s bold statement to the large gathering of Shawn and Sara’s wedding guests.
The warm afternoon sun and crisp August skies made for a beautiful wedding and reception at the Sakis family home northeast of Palmer. The atmosphere was a mixture of joy, excitement and a bit of sadness. The couple in love celebrated by dancing, toasting, greeting guests and sharing this special time with all their friends and family. We all held on to the day, knowing that in the morning they would be off. Off to their next adventure. Sara’s summer break was over and after the wedding they were heading back down to Idaho for school. Sara was enrolled at the University of Idaho in the mechanical engineering program and was entering her senior year.
Upon graduation, Sara received a job offer from a small engineering firm, Janicki Industries, in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. The company was started by engineer, Peter Janicki, and is a leading global supplier of large-scale high-precision prototypes, parts and tooling used by companies all around the world including aerospace leaders such as Boeing, NASA, and Lockheed Martin, governmental support to the Department of Defense, and companies in the marine, transportation, and alternative energy sectors as well.
After living in Sedro-Woolley for a few years Shawn and Sara were able to move back home to Palmer where they planned to start a family. Sara was able to continue her job working from home. This remote status didn’t hinder her position with Janicki Industries. She eventually became a lead engineer and project manager for the company. Her career took a decisive turn when she became the program manager of what would eventually be called the Omni Processor.
The Omni Processor (OP) was invented by Janicki Industries in response to a challenge by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reinvent the toilet. Though the parameters of the challenge were much more specific, the end goal was to invent an economical way for developing nations to deal with human waste as a way of improving sanitation. Janicki was approached by the Foundation in 2012 to participate in the challenge. After three years of design and development the OP progressed from a concept on a piece of paper to a functioning machine. With Sara’s remote oversight from Alaska, the first prototype, the OP S100, was built and tested in Sedro-Woolley. As the prototype was close to becoming operational, Sara, Peter, and other Janicki engineers travelled to India and Africa to promote the machine, demonstrate how it works, and scope potential places where the S100 and other future models could be used.
But what exactly is the Omni Processor? What does it do, and how does it do it? In a single statement, the OP takes sewer sludge and produces clean drinking water, a fertilizing ash, energy to run itself, and excess electricity that can be used privately or sold to a local power grid—all within an area close to the size of a double wide trailer. Put in such simple terms the entire thing sounds a bit unbelievable. But considering the different components of the OP and the technology involved, the reality of what it can do becomes easier to grasp.
First, the sludge is conveyed through a dryer where it is boiled. The resulting water vapor goes through a series of filters until it is condensed, treated, and then dispensed as some of the purest water you can find—anywhere. After the sludge is dried it is incinerated in a boiler that produces steam to run a steam engine which generates enough power to run the entire machine and output excess electricity. The only fuel, besides the sludge, needed for the machine to run is for a generator to get the machine started. Once enough sludge has gone through the machine, it runs solely on the sludge. The ash produced by the incineration process can be used as a fertilizer as it is rich in potassium and phosphorus, or it works well as an additive in concrete. The entire progression, from sludge to water, takes about five minutes. Bill Gates can attest to it. He was there during a trial run earlier this year when sludge from a local treatment facility in Sedro Woolley entered the OP, and in minutes he was handed a glass of water from Peter Janicki, dispensed from a spigot attached to the machine.
The OP S100 has been sent to Dakar, Senegal and is scheduled to be fully operational this June. Though there are multiple variables that affect the output of the OP, in regions such as Dakar, where sanitary waste disposal is a problem, the input capacity is just as important as its output. In a single day, the OP S100 can process approximately 12.3 cubic meters of sewer sludge. Its maximum output of clean water is 10,800 liters a day. In a place where one of the only safe sources of water comes from a bottle, which most people are unable to afford, this clean water will make a big difference.
Meanwhile, back in Sedro-Woolley, the S200, the second OP produced by Janicki, has been built and is undergoing trials. The machine works in a very similar fashion to the S100, but modifications have been made to increase its overall capacity. It is estimated the S200 can process 92.3 cubic meters of sludge a day which translates to just over 24,000 gallons. Due to the increase in the amount of sludge it can process, the S200 can produce around 50,000 to 86,000 liters (13,000 to 22,7000 gallons) of potable water a day. This one machine has the potential to process the fecal sludge produced by a population of 100 to 200 thousand people and provide drinking water for 35 thousand individuals. Just imagine what this machine could mean to people whose bathing and drinking water comes from the same place their waste is disposed. Imagine what hundreds, if not thousands of OPs across the globe could mean to a world trying to combat the pollution of an ever growing population and where sanitation is a problem that only grows by the day.
In developed nations such as the U.S. where clean water is easily attainable, and a commodity most take for granted, there is still a major market for the OP. Though we could definitely use a machine that incinerates our sewage and produces clean water, the OP has the capability of solving another major problem–our trash. Not only can the OP process fecal sludge, it can use garbage as fuel. Basically anything besides heavy metals can be used as its fuel source, and there are benefits to using garbage. In garbage the ratio of water to solids is less than in fecal sludge, which means a smaller amount of water would be produced by the OP. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Less liquid means there is more energy stored in our trash, which means the output of electricity would greatly increase. One of the most exciting things I’ve learned about the OP is its versatility and potential for meeting the needs of different markets. I have yet to think of anyone who wouldn’t have a use for it.
Through the invention and development of the OP, a new company, Janicki Bioenergy, was incorporated in the summer of 2014, with Sara as its president. Unfortunately, her new position came with a price. Though Sara has been able to do her work from home all these years at the foothills of Hatcher Pass, her role as president will require that she and Shawn, with their three children, move back to Washington. From there she will manage the production of more OPs, see to their placement in different locations around the world, and be a part of refining the technology to improve efficiency and overall function. Ultimately, if everything goes according to plan, Sara VanTassel, from Palmer, Alaska, will be running a company that changes the world.
Article by Cecil Sanders
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Categories: Feature Stories