Very little innovation has happened with toilets over the past 200 years. If Thomas Crapper, the 19th century plumber associated with commodes, were alive today “he would find the toilets we use quite familiar,” Bill Gates said yesterday afternoon. Maybe Crapper would notice an extra handle, or rolls for toilet paper, but that’s about all, Gates added.
The billionaire philanthropist was drawn to the subject of toilets yesterday at a conference organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is seeking to spark a new wave of innovation in sanitation. So the foundation brought in research teams from 35 universities and companies to showcase their best ideas, and compete for prizes at the foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Fair.”
Toilets, as Gates said in prepared remarks yesterday, are “an ignored area and an extremely important area” in global health. About 40 percent of the world’s population, 2.5 billion people, don’t have access to safe and affordable sanitation. That means a lot of urine and feces ends up in people’s living environment, creating a breeding ground for pathogens like bacteria that causes cholera. So sanitation—which is taken for granted, and really not very glamorous—has become one of the foundation’s priorities for improving global health, Gates said. Improved sanitation delivers up to $9 in social and economic benefits for every $1 invested, because it prevents disease, makes workers more productive, and reduces healthcare costs, according to the World Health Organization.
The foundation recently delivered about $3.4 million in grants to a variety of teams working in the sanitation field, and the foundation is committed to deliver “many more rounds,” of financing, Gates said. Based on the projects he’s seen over the past year, he said he expects to see some ideas getting deployed on a large scale within the next 2-4 years. Besides some of the technical challenges, there are issues to be hashed out with governments and business, in terms of lining up policies and capital investment to move these ideas forward, Gates said. Some innovations will happen in large-volume, community toilets, and the tougher challenges will be involved in making safe, affordable toilets for single-family homes, Gates said.
“I’m thrilled with what I’ve seen,” Gates said. “I’m getting smarter about sanitation all the time.”
Four teams were awarded prizes for their concepts to reinvent the toilet. Here’s a quick rundown on the winners.
First prize ($100,000)—A team from Caltech led by Michael Hoffman won the grand prize for its work on a solar-powered toilet that not only treats wastewater but also throws off excess hydrogen gas that can be used as a power source. A five-member team of graduate students who come from South Korea, China, Iran and other places contributed to the effort, said Kangwoo Cho, a PhD student in environmental science and engineering working on the project.
Second prize ($60,000)—Loughborough University was awarded for its work on a toilet that turns feces into a biological charcoal through a process called hydrothermal carbonization, in which the feces gets broken down at high temperatures without oxygen and in water.
Third prize ($40,000)—The University of Toronto’s research team at the fair was awarded $40,000 for its work on a toilet that uses mechanical dehydration and smoldering—which the foundation described as low-temperature flameless combustion—to sanitize feces within 24 hours. The toilet is supposed to run urine through a sand filter and disinfect it with ultraviolet light.
Special recognition ($40,000)—The judges couldn’t just settle on one third prize, so they awarded a special recognition to a research team from Eawag and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. This group has created a prototype of a portable urine-diverting toilet that recovers water for flushing, therefore wasting a lot less.
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