British Columbia

Poop-powered cars could soon hit the road in Metro Vancouver

Metro Vancouver will soon be home to a unique power plant that will convert sewage sludge — including human waste and dirty dishwater — into biocrude oil than can be used to fuel cars.

A new power plant will convert raw sewage into organic crude oil that could be used to fuel cars

A pilot plant to be built in Metro Vancouver will convert raw sewage waste into biocrude oil that can be upgraded into gasoline. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

If it's yellow, let it mellow — goes the toilet etiquette saying — but if it's brown, flush it down... and it might end up in your gas tank.

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have successfully converted sewage waste into a substance similar to crude oil. And Metro Vancouver will pilot the technology as it taps into thousands of flushing toilets across the region to fuel a new biocrude oil plant that will open in 2018.

"Metro Vancouver really wants to be as progressive as possible," said Darrell Mussatto, chair of the Metro Vancouver Utilities Committee and mayor of North Vancouver.

"This could potentially revolutionize the entire treatment of sludge in wastewater facilities across the world."

Mussattto says the new pilot facility will be the first of its kind, converting municipal sewage sludge — which includes everything from human waste to dirty dishwater — into a stable biocrude that can be upgraded into gasoline. It will be built on Annacis Island in Delta, B.C. near existing water treatment plants, once the utilities commission secures $4 million in funding.

The development comes shortly after American researchers developed the process in Washington State.

Pressure cooking poop

The process is called hydro-thermal liquefication, and according to Corinne Drennan, one of the lead scientists behind the project, it basically works like a pressure cooker.

Sewage sludge is the primary feedstock that is used to create the biocrude oil. (PNNL/Youtube)

The team takes sewage waste that has been lightly treated to remove some of the excess water, creating sewage sludge.

Then they move it into a reactor system that pressurizes it at 3,000 pounds per square inch and heats it at 350 degrees.

The sewage sludge gets pressurized to 3,000 pounds per square inch, and 350 degrees. (PNNL/YouTube)

The material eventually breaks down into simpler chemical compounds, including organic solids and liquids.

"And that can be upgraded by hydro-processing into a fuel that is very similar to what you would put into a vehicle," said Drennan.

The end result is a biocrude oil that can be refined just like crude oil extracted from the earth's crust to produce gasoline. (PNNL/Youtube)

The process is similar to what happens naturally underground over the course of millions of years — but only takes minutes in a lab.

Metro Vancouver wants in

Once the PNNL announced that it had successfully converted the material, Metro Vancouver jumped at the opportunity to implement the technology on a municipal scale.

"We stepped forward to say, 'Hey, we would like to see if we could play a role in that,' " said Mussatto, adding that current sludge treatments can create biogas — a gaseous fuel produced by the fermentation of organic matter — and fertilizer, but also end up sending much of the excess material to local landfills.

"We've produced a lot of this sludge — and we've always looked at better ways of treating it."

A new pilot facility

Mussatto said the new facility will be a pilot project to try to make the process as efficient and as fruitful as possible. He says the team will also test the end product in vehicles and other equipment.

Researchers from the PNNL estimate that, under the current technology, the amount of wastewater produced by one person could be converted into more than 10 litres of crude oil over the course of a year. They will provide technical support to Metro Vancouver to help evolve the process.

To get the new facility up and running will take a total investment of $8 million dollars, half of which is already available in Metro Vancouver's Sustainability Innovation Fund — a funding pool comprised mostly of taxpayer dollars earmarked for progressive technology.

Mussatto hopes the rest of the money will be gathered from other levels of government.

He said the end goal is to create a zero-waste, wastewater treatment system — one that produces energy in the process.

"This could be a real game-changer for the entire liquid-waste industry. Not just here in Canada, but around the world."


Jon Hernandez

Video Journalist

Jon Hernandez is an award-winning multimedia journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia. His reporting has explored mass international migration in Chile, controversial logging practices in British Columbia, and the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Follow Jon Hernandez on Twitter: