It’s 9 o'clock on a Wednesday morning and Nicholas Angermeier ’19 ambles into USI’s Applied Engineering Center, takes a quick restroom break and swaps his backpack for a pair of safety glasses before joining four other seniors around a metal framework supporting a tangle of wires, tubes and moving parts—thin wisps of smoke rising from a combustion chamber.
Like his classmates, and so many others, Angermeier doesn’t think twice about access to a restroom, modern plumbing or clean running water. At least he didn’t before this project. “Growing up, I didn't realize what was going on in the outside world, especially in developing countries,” he says, “This project has opened my eyes to what’s happening every day.”
The project is a waterless toilet system designed to improve sanitation conditions and to save lives of people living in developing worlds. It’s the brainchild of USI alumna Heather Deal and her company Three Bird Swan, responding to a quest put forth by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2012. It prompted inventors to find a solution to what the United Nation’s General Assembly had deemed a basic human right only a couple years earlier—access to sanitation—and launched a Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.
“As Americans, we don’t consider what not having a toilet is like,” says Deal ’03, public relations. She impressed the Gates Foundation with her early ideas and landed a spot in the competition, pioneering an early prototype and earning a second round of Gates Foundation funding in 2018. “I have three toilets in my own home; we go to the filling station and there’s a washroom. The idea that people, in this day and age, are still becoming ill and garnering diseases, even dying, because of a lack of sanitation, is foreign. It’s appalling.”
World Health Organization experts estimate that as many as two billion people worldwide don’t have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines. Around 673 million still defecate in the open—in street gutters, behind bushes or into open bodies of water. As a result, around 827,000 people in low- and middle-income countries die annually from befouled water, inadequate sanitation and unhygienic practices, including 297,000 deaths in children under the age of 5.
Today, Angermeier and his peers are optimistic that the work they’ve done over the past year may help lead to a solution. “It’s given me the drive to make sure this project is successful,” says Angermeier, who, along with his fellow students, joined Deal’s team last fall. It’s a convergence of skills, ideas and resources putting this group, and the University, at the forefront of innovative engineering, backed by one of the greatest philanthropists of our time.
Over the past year, Deal worked on phase two of her OMNUS (Operational Machinery Needed for Universal Sanitation) prototype, including testing and trial runs with the students. They, working alongside seasoned engineers from Three Bird Swan, represented a variety of engineering disciplines, including mechanical, manufacturing, electrical and civil. “I would never have imagined working on a project this massive or this impactful,” says Jarred Holland ’19, as he makes a minor adjustment to a metal conveyer moving small bits of paper into a combustion chamber. “But knowing that I'm going to make a positive impact on someone else's life— that’s humbling.”
When Three Bird Swan secured a new round of Gates Foundation funding in 2018, Deal was living in Durham, North Carolina, where she’d completed work on the first prototype, as well as been hired as a consultant by other grant recipients. Eager to take the project to the next level, she made the move back to the Evansville area.
Deal and Dr. Paul Kuban, professor of engineering and chair of USI’s Engineering Department, began talking about a partnership with the University that eventually led to the creation of a senior engineering project overseen by Dr. Art Chlebowski, assistant professor of engineering, and Dr. Jason Hill, associate professor of engineering. “Partnering with USI just made sense,” Deal says. “I’ve worked with universities where they had too many commitments to dedicate any real time to a project like this. With USI, the transition has been seamless.”
At this stage in the Gates Foundation competition, most Reinvent the Toilet grant recipients are large universities like the University of Toronto; Duke University; and Cranfield University, in England. “To think that a small engineering consulting firm out of Newburgh, Indiana, in correlation with the University of Southern Indiana, is involved in something of this scale is incredible,” says Deal.
From the outside, USI might look like an underdog. But the University isn’t green when it comes to groundbreaking engineering feats. This is the same Pott College of Science, Engineering, and Education responsible for putting a research satellite into orbit—the first public university in the state to do so. USI is also in its second year of establishing an Engineers in Action program, working alongside Cornell University to build a life-saving bridge in eSwatini, South Africa.
“This sanitation project is one of the biggest senior design projects that’s happened at USI,” says Laron Griffith ’19 who, like his cohorts, when he signed up for the project was unaware of the magnitude of what he and the others were embarking on. “It’s inspiring to work toward something that potentially has such a global impact,” he says.
The team expanded its expertise, bringing on board Dr. Brandon Field, associate professor of engineering, who joined Hill in delivering insight and knowledge in areas like thermodynamic and biological testing. Students and faculty held conference calls with other grant recipients around the globe, bouncing ideas and collaborating on solutions. “There are so many moving pieces with regard to this prototype,” says Deal. “You’ve got electrical, mechanical and environmental engineering all working together. It’s been such a huge benefit to have USI and this engineering team involved.”
Working together wasn’t always easy. Schedules didn’t line up, personalities were different; they had to learn to collaborate, share ideas and look outside the confines of their area of expertise—skills they look back on now as preparing them for real-world teamwork and collaboration. “It’s not about those individual roles—it’s about all five of us, working together toward a larger goal,” says Griffith. That camaraderie spilled over into personal lives, as late nights on the project led to social gatherings and the group’s bond solidified.
The OMNUS concept is a communal toilet that doesn’t rely on a wastewater system or electrical power grid to operate. Waste is repurposed as clean but non-drinkable water, with other byproducts captured as nutrient-rich fertilizer for crops. Its fuel is sourced from shredded paper fed into a combustion unit to produce heat that mixes with fecal matter, creating steam that is collected to create non-potable water. “The key is to contain all the human waste, so it doesn’t pollute the surface or ground water,” says Holland.
More than expert faculty and eager students have made the project a success so far. Perched on a hill at the edge of campus is USI’s Applied Engineering Center, a 16,000 square foot manufacturing facility containing $3 million of high-tech equipment, some of which is found nowhere else in the country. “It’s one of the best shops I’ve ever worked in,” says Deal. “I’ve been incredibly impressed with this facility.”
“This is one of the first companies that has come into this space and used it repetitively and to its full potential,” adds Chlebowski, touting the facility’s state-of-the-art equipment and software that engineers can use to model parts and processes. “Without all the tools and technology available in this facility, it wouldn’t have been possible for us to accomplish what we’ve done,” says Caleb Kauk ’19 as he shows off a series of parts fabricated on site through 3D printing, water jets and other high-end processes.
All five seniors graduated in December and are employed with local engineering firms, including Holland, who accepted a full-time position with Three Bird Swan and will continue to work on the project. “It’s exciting to see what they’ve learned, their capabilities—they’ve become so sure of themselves,” says Deal.
Since December, Three Bird Swan has continued to move the project forward with assistance from Chlebowski and the USI Engineering Department. In recent months the unit has been honed and the team hopes to advance the system to the next level: introducing wastewater.
Much rides on these trials as success will dictate securing a third Gates Foundation grant to fund the deployment of the unit to Durban, South Africa, a hub of real-world testing for many of the Reinvent the Toilet inventors. If successful, the unit will be shipped to the coastal city by early August, beginning a 100-day trial period before the region enters its cyclical manufacturing shutdown period, part of the nation’s energy conservation efforts. Deal, Holland and the rest of her team, will make the trip. Chlebowski will visit the site for two shorter periods at the start and end of the 100-day trial.
Phase three funding would not only cover the Durban field testing but also initial development of a version three of OMNUS with USI again heavily involved, including the opportunity for more senior design and student research projects. Chlebowski would be named a co-principal investigator and the University a full research partner. “This would be an exciting time for the project as we’d see it move from the initial research and testing phases into development of a manufacturing plan and business proposition,” says Chlebowski.
Angermeier and the others don’t take much for granted these days—the experience they’ve gained, the connections they’ve made, the jobs they’ve landed and the impact that hard work, dedication and a little imagination can have at a global level. They now know how lucky they are to be able to do something as simple as flush a toilet. “Growing up, I always wanted to help people out or find ways to contribute to the community,” says Angermeier. “Having the chance to do this with Heather and her team has been life-changing.”