The possibility of solving two of the most pressing problems in developing countries at the same time – inadequate supplies of pure drinking water and inadequate waste disposal systems – may now be at hand. For the Omniprocessor – designed by Janicki Bioenergy and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – will soon be turning human waste in Dakar, Senegal into pure drinking water, electricity, and pathogen-free ash.

Inadequate disposal of human waste leads to the spread of disease and to the death of nearly a million children every year. Since expensive, Western-style sewage treatment facilities are impractical in impoverished countries, the Gates foundation turned to engineering firms for a solution and Janicki came up with the answer. As Gates explained in his blog, “The processor wouldn’t just keep human waste out of the drinking water; it would turn waste into a commodity with real value in the marketplace. It’s the ultimate example of that old expression: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

The Omniprocessor will turn another old truism on its head: “Garbage in – garbage out.” For not only will it generate potable water as well as cash for the entrepreneur who invests about $1.5 million to purchase the machine, the process will also generate its own electricity – with enough electricity left over to be used by the community.

The small processing plant, which measures about 75’ long by 26’ across will be able to handle 14 tons of waste each day – which would meet the needs of a community of 100,000 people. When the trial run in Senegal is up and running, Janicki’s team will also test out sensors and webcams that will allow engineers in the United States to control the machine remotely.

It may be a while before the system is perfected and in widespread use. But help is definitely on its way. And though the ‘toilet to tap’ concept has long been the butt of jokes, we easily forget in our sanitized, industrialized world that everything we depend on to survive comes from the dirt and returns to it.