Toilet competition

First he reinvented computers, now Bill Gates wants to reinvent the toilet

What goes in, must come out… The world’s richest man has set himself a new challenge – to improve sanitation for the poor. More than 230 years after a Scottish watchmaker called Alexander Cummings patented the flush toilet, Bill Gates has handed $100 000 to a team from the California Institute of Technology who believe their invention goes one better.

In an effort to improve conditions for the more than 2,5 billion people worldwide with no access to safe sanitation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last year awarded grants totaling US$3m to eight universities to reinvent the toilet.

At the two-day “Reinventing the Toilet” fair held in Seattle this week, where Bill Gates was on hand with 189 l of fake faeces made from soybeans and rice to put the various designs through their paces, a California Institute of Technology (Caltech) team claimed first place for their solar-powered toilet.

Flush toilets, Gates wrote in a recent blog, “are irrelevant, impractical and impossible for 40 per cent of the global population, because they often don’t have access to water, sewers, electricity and sewage treatment systems”.

A toilet in the developing world is often no more than a hole in the ground, otherwise known as a pit latrine. When there is no practical way of emptying it, its users must dig another, or defecate outdoors.

The world’s richest man, who is also the planet’s most generous philanthropist, set inventors the challenge of developing a lavatory that will work in the most deprived and impoverished environments. To qualify, the prototypes have to operate without running water, electricity or a septic system; must not discharge pollutants; and cost no more than five US cents a day to run. If they also provide a bonus in energy or other resources, even better.

The challenge has ignited a volcano of ingenuity. Caltech’s winning entry is based on a solar-powered electrochemical reactor which breaks down faeces and urine into hydrogen – which in turn becomes a back-up source of energy.

Second prize went to Loughborough University’s effort, in which the waste is turned into biological charcoal which when burned produces the energy to power the system. It also recovers water and salts from the faeces and urine.

The $40 000 third place prize was awarded to a University of Toronto team, whose “Toronto Toilet” uses a sand filter and UV-ray disinfecting chamber to process liquid waste and a smolder chamber, similar to a charcoal barbeque, to incinerate solid waste that has been flattened and dried in a roller/belt assembly.

The new funding brought his commitment to improving water, sanitation and hygiene issues to $370m. His reason for making this huge investment is simple: saving millions of lives. Pit latrines and outdoor defecation are not only offensive to the eyes, nose and dignity of the users but a dire threat to their health.

“Worldwide,” Gates claims, “there are 2,5 billion people without access to safe sanitation. They include one billion people who defecate in the open, and more than one billion others who must use pit latrines. Beyond a question of human dignity, this lack of access also endangers people’s lives, creates an economic and health burden for poor communities, and hurts the environment.” Diarrhoeal diseases, he said, killed more than 1,5 million children every year.

Gates may be aiming his putative new loo at the developing world, but he is far too canny not to see its potential for the west. “In an era where water is becoming increasingly precious,” he says, “many of these innovations will not only revolutionise sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on traditional flush toilets in wealthy nations.”

The unscented synthetic poo used in the trials was supplied by toilet testing organisation, Maximum Performance, which supplies toilet makers worldwide.

A page on its website details, with pictures, the process of making and testing the fake poo, which is packaged into cylinders using a sausage maker.

See the winning loo in action here…


Source: Gizmag and The Independent