How to Solve the World’s Sanitation Problem: Let the Problem Get Bigger

This guest blog post is by TEDMED 2015 speaker Peter Janicki, a founding member of Janicki Industries.

I have been working on large mechanical engineering projects since I got out of college 25 years ago, but the last 3-4 years have been by far the most exciting and rewarding. When you travel through the streets of India or Africa you see some of the most industrious, talented and hardworking people ever, but many of them are just struggling to survive and the sanitation conditions are awful. Making money using fecal sludge, garbage and other waste as the feed stock to radically transform these conditions is my dream.

OP S100 (4) Dakar
Peter Janicki’s Omni Processor in Dakar, Senegal.

With this dream, I designed a machined we call the Omni Processor, which evaporates the water out of sewage, uses the dried solids as fuel to power a boiler, makes high pressure steam, and drives a steam engine to produce electricity. The great news is that my first such machine has been operating in Dakar, Senegal for over a year now, and has passed many milestones. Last month, the water we are making from raw sewage was tested and passed every possible test with flying colors. The steam engine in our Dakar unit is now powering the Omni Processor itself, the control offices and air conditioners, as well as large customer electrical loads.

Making affordable electric power and clean drinking water from sewage is a tremendous achievement, and we recognize that. When you walk through our engineering offices, you can feel the excitement and optimism for the future. Nothing is perfect and we are continuing to improve the power output and overall mechanical system, but we will get there. It is inevitable that, with continued focus and perseverance, the equipment will work as dreamed.

When I reflect upon the journey so far, it is clear that I woefully underestimated the engineering effort to design, build and deploy this machine. But, in some ways, this is my life story. I am overly optimistic and this is part of the magic to being successful. I look at what appears to be an impossible problem and say, “Ok, we can do this, let’s go for it.” And, in the end, this optimism, coupled with tremendous perseverance, wins. While there will always be opportunity to improve the technology, the next real challenge is successfully integrating this machine into the social and political landscape of these cultures. I recognize that this is, by and large, not an engineering problem; rather, it is a matter of understanding human nature and culture outside of my area of experience. We can and will learn from others as we install equipment in these communities.

Like so many other problems I have faced, I am probably underestimating how hard it is going to be to get this perfect, but I will remain optimistic. In the end, with perseverance, focus and hard work, I am confident we will win on this front, as well. We will figure this out. We will not stop until we do. My team and I work 24/7, day after day, year after year, and never give up. I talk to my team on Saturday night, or late in the evenings, or at 5 o’clock in the morning—whenever inspiration arrives. We win, because we focus on winning. Ideas come to you when you are dreaming, going for a walk, taking a shower–not just from 8-5 in an office. Seize the moment when it comes. Do not let the opportunity of inspiration pass.

Janicki_crop_portraitEngineer Peter Janicki describes his unique methods for setting industry standards across sectors, from airplanes and boats to his current fascination–basic sanitation in low-income countries.