It sounds like a fairly basic solution for today’s energy crisis. Take large amounts of organic waste, convert it to biogas, generate electricity and heat, and store the excess for later use, making life easier for millions of people without access to sources of reliable energy. Simple.
Yet, behind this basic approach from a startup called SEaB Energy Ltd. lies a more complicated and fundamental issue. The world is a big place with a lot of people and many problems that can’t be quickly or easily solved. How exactly can technology play a role and make a meaningful difference in the lives of citizens around the globe?
Finding a way to convert waste (plenty of it everywhere) to reliable energy (not so much) is a good place to start. An estimated 1.2 billion people lack access to the world’s energy, with a significant number of them located in developing Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 80 percent of them reside in rural regions.
SEaB, a participant in the PeaceTech Accelerator program supported by Amazon Web Services Inc., C5 Capital and SAP NSz, offers an intriguing glimpse into the potential for technology to make a difference in the energy sector as other firms take on equally significant tasks, such as improving education or enhancing the quality of life in cities throughout the world.
For SEaB, it starts by taking the technology on the road. The firm has organized a Kickstarter campaign to convert waste to energy in remote communities in India.
“We are doing the Kickstarter to fund the first two systems we would like to deploy there,” said Tania Pinto(pictured, right), sales and marketing executive at SEaB Energy. “After we’re in the first two villages, our goal is to find local manufacturers and actually expand to all of the remote places that have no access to energy.”
Pinto spoke with John Furrier (@furrier), host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile livestreaming studio, at the PeaceTech Lab at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., as part of theCUBE’s special AWS Public Sector CUBE Conversation series. They discussed the motivation for starting her company, the science and technology behind waste conversion, and the support of AWS for her startup’s initiative.
This week, theCUBE spotlights Tania Pinto in our Women in Tech feature.
Converting poop into energy
The genesis for SEaB’s waste conversion model came from one of life’s common occurrences. The founders stepped in it.
At their farm in the English countryside, Nick and Sandra Sassow tended horses that generated more than enough waste product to go around, according to Pinto. After stepping in a pile of manure, Sandra challenged her partner to find a way to use what was lying on the ground around them. So he did.
SEaB’s process involves using modular, odor-free, anaerobic digesters in 20-foot shipping containers to process organic waste. The resulting biogas can be used to create electricity or heat water. “We came up with waste power in a box, appliances that are made to tackle climate change,” Pinto explained. “Essentially, it’s a biological process.”
By offering self-contained units where waste can be processed and turned into energy onsite, the company eliminates the less-than-green situation where the material must be trucked to large-scale conversion facilities. Early customers included a U.K. hospital and a supermarket in Portugal. More recently, the company installed one of its anaerobic digestion systems at a U.S. naval base in California.
Watch the complete video interview with Pinto below:
Potential aid to cities
SEaB’s self-contained concept raises the possibility for creating a closed-loop system to allow neighborhoods in densely populated urban areas to become their own power plants. Meanwhile, the company is continuing to adjust its technology model for improved efficiency and greater scale.
“We are working with AWS to come up with a user interface that is more attractive so that customers can actually optimize their energy production by playing around with how they’re handling their own waste,” Pinto said.
SEaB’s urban potential fits neatly with a larger initiative being led by AWS to bring innovative tech solutions to cities around the globe. The AWS City on a Cloud Innovation Challenge was started four years ago as a way to generate innovative new ideas that could solve urban problems involving areas such as water monitoring, transportation or conducting a tree census.
The city-focused initiative has resulted in prizes awarded to projects such as one in Jerusalem where a combination of radio tags and Google Maps lets citizens alert garbage trucks to where trash needs to be picked up, or a cloud-based solution for pothole repair in London.
“One of the things I love about technology is that it has a democratizing affect,” Tricia Davis-Muffett, director of global public sector marketing at AWS, said during a separate CUBE interview with Furrier. “If you have an idea you can make that idea happen for very little money with just your ingenuity."
Focus on child abuse and education
In addition to its work with SEaB Energy and various urban projects, AWS has channeled technology and resources into societal problems as well. Thorn, a non-profit organization working to protect children from abuse, runs a program on AWS to analyze data from 150,000 daily ads provided by law enforcement agencies. The target is the dangerous and disturbing world of child sex trafficking.
“They are using artificial intelligence to crawl the dark web and help find people who are trafficking children,” Davis-Muffett said. “It helps to make police officers’ jobs more effective.”
In an effort to deal with the shortage of technology talent plaguing the tech industry on a global basis, AWS recently expanded its Educate program to include students age 14 and up. The program provides free training in cloud computing and the technology behind AI and voice recognition. Launched only three years ago, AWS Educate now has more than 1,500-member educational institutions and hundreds of thousands of students enrolled.
It is this kind of mentorship and training that is helping Pinto get SEaB more widely used around the world. Her company is one of five firms that are part of the PeaceTech Accelerator’s third cohort, and Pinto is already seeing how an exposure to fellow entrepreneurs will help SEaB refine the positioning of its ambitious technology.
“Being with a group from all different backgrounds has helped us clarify that and deliver a better, cleaner message,” Pinto concluded.