Bacteria Eat Human Sewage, Produce Rocket Fuel

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"It costs [the bacteria] a lot of energy, and they get return on their investment by consuming it again," Strous explained. "They are dependent on it, so it can't be removed."

Prototype Plant

Instead, researchers are harnessing the bacteria for more down-to-Earth applications, such as sewage treatment.

Strous says it took two or three years to scale up the anammox process from the lab to a waste treatment facility.

The prototype plant in Rotterdam is performing at a high level, he says, and others will soon follow. "The next one is already starting up much more quickly," Strous said.

The researcher, who advises sewage treatment projects in the Netherlands, notes that conventional sewage treatment facilities can be easily retrofitted to use the anammox reaction.

The low operating costs might allow such systems to provide much needed waste water treatment in regions where adequate facilities are lacking or nonexistent.

More sewage treatment plants could benefit human health. They could also reduce global amounts of ammonia from untreated waste.

Excessive ammonia can wreak havoc with freshwater ecosystems by reacting with oxygen, tying up the gas, which many species need for respiration.

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