Bill Gates Leads the Way in Sanitation Technology

We all have a tale to tell about a particularly nasty restroom experience, but let’s face it; here in the West we have it pretty good. Why, Kohler just came out with the Numi toilet which warms your toes and plays music while you’re ensconced—an improvement on the tinkle-tinkle song your mom used to hum.

The reality for the rest of the world, however, is very different. Forty percent of the global population lacks clean and safe sanitation services. It’s a sorry fact that 2.6 billion people don’t have access to safe sanitation and 1.5 million children die each year from diarrheal disease—most of this preventable with proper sanitation, safe drinking water and improved hygiene.

Yesterday at the 2011 AfricaSan Conference in Rwanda, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it would fund $42 million worth of grants aimed at developing systems to capture and store waste and process it into reusable energy, fertilizer, and sanitized water.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—partnering with USAID to improve water sanitation as part of the UN’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals—has thrown a challenge to universities around the world to come up with a cheap toilet—costing no more than five cents a day—which can turn waste into fuel and nutrients or recycle waste water into clean safe drinking water.

The solution must be a stand-alone unit without piped-in water, a sewer connection or outside electricity.  The foundation and its partners are looking at cutting edge technologies which could potentially produce toilets that can empty, process and recycle waste without the use of any water at all.

The Reinventing the Toilet Challenge encompasses eight universities that will compete to find the best toilet technologies for needy populations. Among the ideas at play – a solar-powered toilet, a toilet which bakes fecal waste into biological charcoal, a toilet which microwaves human waste to produce enough electricity to sustain several households, and a toilet which can extract water from urine.

How would you design a cheap, clean and safe throne? Maybe Kohler has some ideas.

Photo: The Advocacy Project on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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