Portable microwave-based treatment system for on-site faecal sludge treatment: a promising technology

19 April 2021

‘Portable microwave-based treatment system for on-site faecal sludge treatment for the humanitarian and development WASH sector’ started in 2017 in Jordan as a means to provide better access to clean drinking water and improve sanitary conditions. The project was established to solve challenges caused by water scarcity issues in relation to the refugee crisis in the Middle East, which predominantly affected Lebanon and Jordan. 

Improving health with innovative sanitation solution

People within a lower income bracket, such as those in rural settlements or refugee and emergency camps, are faced with inadequate sanitation solutions that increase the risk of health complications. This MicroWave (MW) is a genuine effort to improve the health conditions of said individuals.

By strengthening the capacities which operate this system, for the purpose of better usage of machine-generated water and energy resources, the water pressure in countries such as Jordan will decrease. These capacities were later introduced by Dr. Hernandez including Jordanian MSc students and diverse technicians to operate the system.

This project’s goal is the application and testing of the performance and user acceptance of a novel pilot scale MicroWave (MW) system for Faecal and Septic Sludge (FSS) treatment (“Sludge killer”) due to a protracted humanitarian crisis. MW irradiation is an efficient way of eradicating pathogens due to its unique nature in rapid heating, and it is also promising for FSS drying. In situations where a greater amount of FSS is produced, the MW system can be applied as a compact, easily portable, and effective FS treatment package system.

The application of a promising technology to de-sludge and treat on-site FS is a promised outcome of the project, through cooperation with Dutch partners on the testing of the MW unit. The experience of Jordanian partners is enhanced by involving the German- Jordanian University on FS treatment technologies. 

The Mobile Microwave: a solution for emergencies?

Dr. Hector Garcia Hernandez, Associate Professor of Wastewater at IHE Delft and the Project Leader of the Mobile Microwave Project explains about installing this system, the expectations, and the outcomes. 

IHE Delft generally centres itself on developing technologies able to solve water challenges. Dr. Hernandez: "We are developing technologies at IHE where we start with researching. First, we start with the concept, which is the domestic Mobile Microwave in this case, since there was nothing done on this project before’’. He continues: “from an industrial point of view, the concept for us is sanitation in emergency cases, thus developing a microwave treatment unit for that purpose”.

He then takes us through the historical background of the domestic microwave: “The need for such technology is derived from the ‘emergency’ context in which sudden challenges arise from unexpected global events, such as the refugee crisis.” He continues: “treating sludge using the same method started in 2011, when students in Kenya took sludge from a northern city in the Netherlands to microwave it, later collaborating with a company in Germany to transform their small pilot into something bigger and more comprehensive.” He concludes: “After this collaboration, we decided to take it to an industrial level and came up with the idea of a better reactor designed in Slovenia, emphasising sanitation in emergency contexts".

In Jordan, the mobile microwave system is positively affecting public health, because the reactors kill off pathogens, while also exploring resources including energy and water from the sludge
Hector Garcia Hernandez
Associate Professor of Wastewater

When asked about the number of people this system is expected to serve, he emphasises at first that commercialisation of such systems is not a primary principle. Instead, developing, testing and researching is where most attention and efforts are directed. “Commercialisation as a concept is given to other companies to explore. As for us, we design, research and implement systems in emergency situations”. Regarding the number of people, it currently serves: ‘’So far, there is only one septic derived from the project. It is actually quite difficult to tell. Based on mathematical equations combining the ability of the reactor, the capacity of the truck and average faecal excretion per person, I would say around 1,000 persons a day’’. The final point he makes regarding the technology: “We have developed and tested this technology, however we want to bring it to a larger scale. As an IHE research project, it is limited while a larger scale requires different settings and bigger constructions, although the concept is the same’’.

Dr. Hernandez then speaks about the process of implementing this system and the parties involved. “We began with an inception mission, in collaboration with Jordanian partners [German-Jordanian University], who had a field-test location in the Jordan Valley, where the system operates’’. He further discussed involving a PhD student in assessing and supporting capacities: “The plan was to have a PhD student from Jordan working there, however this was replaced by a PhD student representing the Slovenian Company Tehnobiro Ms. Eva Kocbek, due to the high finances of employing a Jordanian student’’. He continues: ‘’during the building of the system in Slovenia, there was continuous collaboration with the German- Jordanian University, where professors helped us with the trials after shipping the system and pilot to the Valley. Several additional technicians and graduate-students were also hired to operate this system."

Finally, he mentions that the project is finalised, but it is still going through a ‘final wrap-up phase’: “We have to deliver it in a seminar and invite water sector people to discover how this will be accepted in the Jordanian context. It is basically the same water sanitation meeting I talked about previously.’’ Providing more context: “we are set to explain the amount of energy consumed, the way it functions from the scientific and technical approaches, and later - possibly April - we will communicate these findings’’.

Developing the prototype with Jordanian partners

IHE Delft also interviewed Dr. Zakariya Dalala from the German Jordanian University, a partner to IHE Delft who plays an important role in this project. Dr. Dalala agrees that the process is complex, stating: “In fact, the idea [of a reactor] seemed big to us due to the need of a customised design from scratch. Also, the question of mobility to a different country then operating it wasn’t really comforting, however we helped and supported it as much as we could’’. He then mentions that developing the prototype of the Mobile Microwave took approximately two years thanks to the “well developed knowledge of the IHE Delft team’’. Though logistics caused some minor delays, the results are complete, he concluded. 

Once asked about the possibility of developing the system on a mass scale in a period of 5-10 years, he answers: “Probably not. My area of expertise is in the energy field and probably judging development in another sector, that might seem a bit overreaching. However, due to the cost associated with such technology and the existence of probable competing technologies, it might need some time to mature and be suitable for mass production standard’’. He also briefly takes us through the challenges surrounding the project during implementation and afterwards: ‘’Logistics of moving the system from another continent were cumbersome. The project is considered high tech and market penetration for such technology needs infrastructure and capacity building that is necessary to operate the technology.”

Finally, and talking about its main target group, refugees in Jordan, and whether it has been properly presented to them, Dr. Dalala states: “Not yet. The plan was to do exactly that, but the COVID-19 pandemic hindering the completion of the public engagement, which is still something we are working on with the IHE Delft team and hopefully we can generate some interaction with relative stakeholders and seek feedback.’’

PhD topic

Eva Kocbek studied mechanical engineering in Slovenia and finished her MSc in Urban Water and Sanitation,- specializing in Water Supply Engineering. Currently, she is working towards her PhD, in which the Mobile Microwave project is the main topic of her thesis. Eva is also the student who oversees the project sent by the manufacturing company, Tehnobiro.

IHE Delft had a brief interview with her regarding her work and expectations. “When I started my PhD, I sought an opportunity to work on a project relating to environmental engineering, and that is when I found the MW project for which I received funding and technical support. Since then I have obtained a lot of practical experience’’ said Eva on how she ended up supporting the project. 

On her work and expectations: “Prior to the shipping of the system, I conducted a few pilot studies in order to find out fast and efficient methods for sanitation and reducing sludge in a short time’’. She continues: ‘’besides the microwave technologies, ultrafiltration, treating sludge, sanitizing it and improving strategic use were all integrated in the initial research’’.  

When asked on how she thinks the project is making an impact: “The system itself provides a promising technology to sanitize and provide tremendous health services in emergency cases.''

Next step

IHE Delft is set to develop further, together with the partner in Slovenia, a pilot MW reactor unit. This unit will be applied in Lebanon, with involvement of the Netherlands Red Cross, Lebanese Red Cross (LRCS) and the Lebanese University. In parallel we will provide training with the partners and UNICEF, UNHCR, on emergency WASH. The outcome is a tested MW system for Lebanon, and increased local WASH capacity. The MW system will remain with the partners in Lebanon, for future use.

This story was written after interviewing Dr. Hector Garcia Hernandez of IHE Delft, Dr. Zakariya Dalala of the German-Jordanian University, and PhD fellow Ms. Eva Kocbek. The interviews were conducted by IHE Delft’s interns, Yaman Attar and Pooja Sadarangani. Partners include Tehnobiro Slovenia (Private Sector), the German-Jordanian University, Jordan Ministry of Water and Irrigation/ Water Authority of Jordan, and Jordanian water utility Miyahuna.

You can read more about the project here and visit its main website here.


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