Harvesting Energy From Wastewater Across Scales and Varying Economic Contexts

EPA Grant Number: FP917274
Title: Harvesting Energy From Wastewater Across Scales and Varying Economic Contexts
Investigators: Tilmans, Sebastien H
Institution: Stanford University
EPA Project Officer: Michaud, Jayne
Project Period: August 1, 2011 through July 31, 2014
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2011) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Science & Technology for Sustainability: Green Energy/Natural Resources Production & Use


Wastewater contains water, energy and nutrients, all of which are resources that society currently procures at high economic and ecologic cost. With increasing water scarcity, rising energy prices and mounting concerns over climate change, resource recovery from wastewater is an attractive alternative to the current treatand- discharge management system. Also, many treatment plants around the United States are reaching their design life and entering strategic planning processes, while more than one-third of the global population remains without access to sanitation services. This research will quantify the resources available to recover in wastes, and assess the conditions under which it is feasible and beneficial to do so. The results will help sanitation and water resource planners at home and abroad to develop the best waste management systems to advance societal, economic and environmental health.


One aspect of the project will use modeling software and case study data to analyze the energy balance of waste flows within communities and across different scales of decentralization (building-level, neighborhood-level or city/catchment scale). The other aspect is to use surveys, interviews and focus groups with community residents, regulators, utility personnel and other stakeholders to identify non-technical opportunities and constraints to resource recovery from wastes. The research will use case studies from the United States and sites in developing countries to calibrate the model and derive guiding principles for planners and designers.

Expected Results:

This research will help spur a shift among wastewater infrastructure planners from focusing on waste management to concentrating on resource recovery. It will highlight methods to produce value from wastewater, and identify effective strategies for doing so. Specifically, the research will underscore the potential to generate energy from wastewater, a subject that is typically eclipsed by discussions of water reuse. As strategies are implemented for water reuse, the technical and economic parameters around energy recovery from wastewater will change dramatically. The analysis tools developed in this research will serve to pre-test plans and technologies within large integrated systems, informing policy and planning decisions for optimal environmental and economic benefits.

Potential to Further Environmental / Human Health Protection

In the United States, resource recovery from wastewater can help preserve the public health benefits of aging infrastructure by providing new revenues and lowering the cost of waste management. It can restore ecosystem services by reducing withdrawals from streams and aquifers, and by creating sources of sustainable energy and materials. In developing countries, resource recovery can help finance the installation and operation of new systems, delivering health and dignity to billions of people who are currently without service. This research will provide decision makers with some of the tools they will need to realize these opportunities.

Supplemental Keywords:

resource recovery, wastewater, infrastructure, water, sanitation, developing countries, water reuse, energy, water-energy nexus, decentralized treatment

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2012
  • 2013
  • Final