Bill Gates: In Search of a Smarter and Resourceful Toilet 2.0

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is embarking on a new sanitation-focussed strategy. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President of the Foundations’s Global Development Program, announced in her keynote address at the 2011 AfricaSan3 Conference in Kigali, on July 19th-

“The sanitation revolution has done more to save lives and improve health than any public health intervention in the past 200 years. But the flush toilet has only reached one-third of the world’s population. Clearly, we need to encourage new ideas and new approaches to accelerate safe and affordable access to sanitation for everyone.”

This is why the foundation has announced $41.5 million in new program investments and a new program strategy.

“Some of these funds will be used to spur innovation in sanitation science and technology, which includes the capture and storage of human waste, as well as its processing into reusable energy, fertilizer, and fresh water.”

UNICEF estimates that 1.1 billion people worldwide don’t have access to any kind of toilet or ways of eliminating waste. That, in turn, fouls drinking water and can cause diarrhea, which spreads quickly.

The goal is to find “innovative solutions” for sanitation in poor urban areas. Gates says it’s time to move on from the era of the classic toilet. He points out that-

..”despite all the recent achievements, 40% of the world’s population, or some 2.5 billion people, still lives without proper means of flushing away excrement. But just giving them Western-style toilets isn’t possible because of the world’s limited water resources.”

Some of these funds will be used to spur innovation in sanitation science and technology, which includes the capture and storage of human waste, as well as its processing into reusable energy, fertilizer, and fresh water.

The program’s Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) initiative is focused on engaging creative minds to work on scientific and technological breakthroughs for the world’s most pressing health and development problems. GCE is a grant program that fosters innovative, early-stage research to expand the pipeline of ideas that can lead to those much-needed global health and development solutions. Some of the innovative solutions that have received grants include-

  • Technology to Convert Excreta to Valuable Product- Developing a single portable unit that combines anaerobic micro-digesters and micro-combined heat/power thermoelectric generation units—that can consume human excreta to generate electricity, heat, methane, fertilizer, and water. Each device will be designed to serve a single extended family.
  • Algae for the Effective and Economical Treatment of Waste- Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae- mass cultivated using wastewater as the feedstock) will treat waste and produce two forms of renewable energy: nutrient- rich fertilizer to enhance agriculture and bio-methane to power the facility and local communities.

In addition, the foundation challenged 22 universities to submit proposals for- how to invent a waterless, hygienic toilet that is safe and affordable for people in the developing world and doesn’t have to be connected to a sewer. Eight universities were awarded grants to “reinvent the toilet.”

Some of the innovative grants include:

  • A toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water.
  • Turning the toilet into an electricity generator for local use.
  • A toilet that uses mechanical dehydration and smoldering of feces to recover resources and energy.

Bill Gates has turned his attention to a very unglamorous and taboo, but critical aspect of human life- the toilet and is looking to give it a much-needed technological uplift. Why not? When everything around us is becoming smarter and multi-functional, why not the toilet?

Read more about waterless toilet technologies available today on our sister-site Sustainablog!

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