Practical Alchemy: 374Water Transforms Fecal Sludge Into Clean Water

374Water Co-Founder Marc Deshusses stands in front of a pilot unit with the company's NC TECH award.

Maybe you didn’t know, but pretty much anything you flush down the toilet can be transformed into clean water. Just ask 374Water.

A startup spun out from Duke University, 374Water transforms organic waste like fecal sludge into clean water. 374Water was the recipient of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Resource Recovery Prize in July, and was also recently recognized by NC TECH as one of its “Startups To Watch.”

Co-Founders Kobe Nagar (CEO) and Marc Deshusses (CTO) started 374Water in 2018 with what Nagar said was a “crazy idea” submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—using technology to destroy waste and applying it to the sanitation and human-waste-treatment sphere.

The startup sells equipment and implements 374Water’s technology into existing wastewater-treatment facilities.

Nagar said that traditionally in designing wastewater treatment facilities, it takes 25 years for finalization. With 374Water’s pilot technology, it’s a more modular approach, he said. 374Water plans a full launch by the end of next year.

374Water’s product generates water and energy from any type of organic waste, all in the vision of enabling a world without waste. Nagar said this creates a circular economy. Still, many people think water and waste are in two different worlds.

“I’m actually doing this for my kids, for the next generation,” Nagar said. “And it’s all about keeping our drinking water clean. And there are a lot of people, friends of mine, who don’t want to talk about water with me because I start telling them what’s in the water.”

Nagar said the challenge for 374Water is educating people that there is a connection between what you throw in your trash and flush down the toilet and your drinking water and food—the former ends up in the latter.

“I think a lot of people cannot make that connection in their head,” Nagar said. “They think their waste is going to a magical place. And what we want to create is at least educate people that it’s all in the same ecosystem.”

Waste is a global problem, and Nagar said 374Water is capitalizing on the increased awareness about what’s in our water with movies like the 2019 film Dark Waters.

There’s a gap between being a technology and a market, though. Nagar said it has taken time to get people to recognize this is a way to solve a huge problem in our world.

“We had great technology,” Nagar said. “Once we made it happen, we realized that this is something that can actually change the world.”

While the pandemic presents challenges, being a startup is all about adapting to the situation, he said, and 374Water is no different.

With the rise of coronavirus, people may have more time to become aware and read about their environment. In some ways, the pandemic has helped 374Water as the startup engages with major water players and strategic engineering firms, Nagar said. 

As a co-founder of 374Water, Nagar said he can talk all day about how water is amazing.

“It’s one of one of those molecules that we think we understand,” Nagar said. “It looks pretty simple. But the science behind it, it’s not fully developed. And what we’re doing with our technology, with this supercritical water technology, is understanding how water behaves in those conditions. And it’s pretty amazing.”

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About Suzanne Blake 145 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. She is also a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Reach Suzanne at suzanne@grepbeat.com.