A university team of Hertz Foundation Fellows called the Biochar Group recently won recognition and financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Their winning entry into the “Re-inventing the Toilet Challenge” (RTTC) was a unique application of biochar, which is a process by which charcoal is created through the thermal decomposition of biomass. The grant was announced at the third annual AfricaSan Conference in Rwanda, as part of some $40 million slated for new investments in water, sanitation and hygiene improvement.
The Biochar Group is a volunteer collaboration involving Hertz Fellows from MIT, Caltech, the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University. It is one of eight winning teams from 22 universities who took on the Gates Foundation challenge: To develop a 21st century toilet without links to water, energy, or sewer lines and will cost users under $0.05 a day.
The award money will support the production of crucial biochar to help reverse carbon depletion in soils; more specifically, it will go towards transforming the disposal and sterilization of sewage in a million-person slum in Nairobi, Kenya, in conjunction with Sanergy, an MIT startup working in Africa on sanitation and renewable energy.
“We are honored to see our Fellows participate in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation effort, which aims to improve the lives of 2.6 billion people without adequate sanitation on our planet,” said Dr. Jay Davis, Hertz Foundation President. “The Hertz Fellows have built a vibrant community to support and inspire one another. Good things come from that collaboration and the Biochar Group has been one of the most exciting. We’re doubly grateful to have our work recognized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”
Biochar is a high grade of charcoal formed in a low-oxygen environment. Instead of burning or combustion, pyrolysis converts biomass into biochar in the range of 450- 600º C. This principle could ultimately be applied to the transformation of all sewage in third world countries.
The Hertz Foundation Biochar Group has worked for two years to build four generations of machines that create biochar to sequester carbon in the soil. “Each year 60 gigatons of agriculturally-fixed carbon rots and turns back into carbon dioxide,” said Dr. Brian Von Herzen, Executive Director of the Climate Foundation, Hertz Fellow (1980) and Director of the Biochar Group. “By converting just ten percent of the fixed carbon into biochar, we could actually capture and sequester most of man’s atmospheric carbon dioxide emitted each year.”
The Biochar Group’s efforts will be directed by Dr. Von Herzen and Professor Reginald Mitchell at Stanford University, the home university for the 2011 project. “To address the needs of the 2.6 billion people who don’t have access to safe sanitation, we not only must reinvent the toilet, we also must find safe, affordable and sustainable ways to capture, treat, and recycle human waste,” said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Most importantly, we must work closely with local communities to develop lasting sanitation solutions that will improve their lives.”
The Biochar Group was formed in 2009 when Dr. Von Herzen spoke at a community-building retreat for Hertz Fellows, supported by Hertz Fellow Ray Sidney. The Biochar Group won Berkeley’s 2010 Venture Lab competition at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, with the help of Berkeley graduate students Andrew North and Matt Beres. The Group participants include John Frank, Tony Miller, Matt Lucas and Shannon Yee, with the support of Ray Sidney, Louis Lerman and The Climate Foundation.
About the Climate Foundation
The Climate Foundation has the long-term objective to reduce global warming through recycling of carbon on land and in the sea. It is also working to preserve coral reef ecosystems by lowering temperature and ocean acidification, and by supporting terrestrial and marine carbon recycling research, including renewable energy work. In addition, the Climate Foundation works to develop sound policies and protocols for carbon sequestration in our country and other nations. More information about the Climate Foundation can be found at http://www.climatefoundation.org.
About the Hertz Foundation
For nearly half a century, the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation has focused on empowering young applied scientists and engineers with the freedom to innovate in their doctoral research. The Hertz Foundation has provided the nation’s most generous PhD fellowships to nearly 1,100 gifted young men and women. The highly competitive selection process includes a comprehensive written application, four references, and two rounds of technical interviews by recognized leaders in applied science and engineering. In addition to supporting the Fellows in their graduate education, the Foundation provides unique seminars, workshops and symposia that take place away from their campus environments. These gatherings expose the in-school Fellow to national leaders and researchers, many of whom are alumni Fellows of the Foundation. More information about the Hertz Foundation can be found at http://www.hertzfoundation.org.