Toilet Science: Gates Foundation Challenges Scientists To Think Green
August 15, 2012

Toilet Science: Gates Foundation Challenges Scientists To Think Green

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Modern sanitation is a major problem for nearly a third of the world´s population. To attack the issue head on, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has called forth on scientists to reinvent an everyday object that many of us take for granted: the toilet.

Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates announced during a technology showcase in Seattle this week that his foundation would allot further funding for the best projects showcased at the event. After reviewing the projects, Mr. Gates made the call for which ideas would receive more money to carry on with their projects

“We couldn't be happier with the response that we've gotten,” Gates said at the toilet expo.

The challenge was not going to be simple. The foundation set a high threshold for the solution to the toilet of the future. It must operate without running water, electricity or a septic system, not discharge pollutants, capture energy or other resources, and only cost 5 cents a day to utilize.

“The current design has a real problem. It uses a lot of water, requires a very expensive system to bring in very clean water, then you make that water dirty,” Gates said at the flush-fest. “You have a very expensive system to take it away and then you have a treatment plant and actually the water you are using there is almost ten times as much as you use for direct human consumption,” he added.

“What we are used to is a toilet that is connected to sewer systems and water systems, so in some ways it's a luxury to be able to flush a gallon of water every time you pull the handle on the toilet,” said Chris Elias, President of Global Development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “That's not a scalable solution; most places don't have that much water.”

The United Nations estimates that disease caused by unsafe sanitation results in about half the hospitalizations in the developing world. Nearly 1.5 million children die each year because of diarrheal disease due to poor sanitation.

Most deaths could be prevented if proper sanitation existed in much of the developing world, according to scientists tasked with bringing green technology to the traditional toilet. Safe drinking water and improved hygiene are also important.

The foundation, which has committed $370 million to the green project, expects to test the first prototypes within three years. Most of the prototypes on display this week in Seattle turn solid waste into energy.

This is both a practical and pragmatic solution to the solid waste puzzle, according to Carl Hensman, program officer for the foundation's water, sanitation and hygiene team.

Many of the designs recycle waste into other usable substances such as animal feed, water for irrigation, or even just energy and water to run their own systems.

Scientists from Caltech, who perhaps had the best design, showed that their john used chemistry to completely transform the waste.

Clement Cid, a Caltech grad student from Trouillas, France, said it has been intellectually rewarding to work with scientists from a variety of specialties. “You can come up with great ideas,” he told the Associated Press.

Another top idea came from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, whose invention involves an army of black soldier fly larvae in latrines and home toilets to process waste, resulting in high quality, environmentally friendly animal feed at the cost of a penny per day.

That project is already being field tested in Cape Town, South Africa, and the inventors are working on a kit to sell to entrepreneurs. So far, they have received inquiries from Haiti, Sudan, Kenya and Ghana about adopting the method.

“At the end of the day it will look very low-tech, but there's a lot of science behind it,” said Walter Gibson, a medical biochemist who is part of the development team.

Reinventing the toilet has the potential to improve lives as well as the environment. Modern flush toilets waste tons of potable drinking water each year, fail to recapture reusable resources and are simply impractical in today´s society.

Gates believes the result of this project will have wide-reaching effects, extending beyond the developing world. “If we do it right, there's every possibility that some of these designs would also be solutions for rich and middle-income countries.”