Powerful crap: The quest to turn smelly sewage into sweet biodiesel

Metaphorically speaking, Todd French has been striving to make chicken salad out of, you know, at his Mississippi facilities. (credit: David MacNeal)

STARKVILLE, Mississippi—“By the time it gets here, David, it’s no longer my poop,” says microbiologist Todd French with conviction. “I don’t want you to think there’s solid turds coming in over there. When we get it as sludge, it’s far removed from what it was when it left your body. That’s all bacteria that has grown and fed off this stuff.”

French is trying to reassure me. We’re gazing down into a concrete vat filled with a churning tide of gray and green water at the Ernest E. Jones Wastewater Treatment Plant in Starkville, Mississippi. A gust of wind kicks an odor off the frothy surface; a spittle-sized drop of foam has hit my lip. Students in French’s program must get hepatitis shots and boosters before helping French in his audacious quest to convert sludge like this into biodiesel; I furiously rub my finger over the spot, removing as many dermis layers as possible.

But French tells me he’s ingested “mouthfuls” of the water without ill effects. “You don’t have to worry about getting anything… too much,” he says.

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