You might take the toilet for granted. But the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been thinking about it a lot. The foundation announced $41.5 million worth of grants on Tuesday aimed at inspiring someone to re-engineer the toilet.
Why fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken? The basic design hasn’t changed much in its 200 year history. Why is it suddenly a problem?
“No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet,” Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation’s global development program, said in a statement. “But it did not go far enough. It only reached one-third of the world. What we need are new approaches. New ideas. In short, we need to reinvent the toilet.”
When you think about it, a toilet is demanding. It requires lots of running water and a sewer hook up, both of which are hard to come by in developing countries. And for all of its demands, the toilet does nothing to treat waste.
About 2.5 billion people don’t have access to toilets as we’ve currently imagined them, and this lack of toilet access encourages the spread of diarrheal diseases, which are blamed for the deaths of 1.5 million children each year, according to the World Health Organization.
The Gates Foundation has handed out eight grants to universities who dare to dream of a better toilet. Some especially dramatic re-design ideas include:
• Andrew Cotton, from Loughborough University in the UK, is making a toilet that will “recover water and salt from feces and urine.”
• Georgios Stefanidis, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, is working on a toilet that will generate electricity from waste, which will be “gasified into plasma” using microwaves. That gas can be used to generate electricity, according to the proposal.
• Yu-Ling Chen, from the University of Toronto, is trying to make a toilet that will “sanitize feces within 24 hours” so human waste doesn’t transmit disease through a community. Chen plans to use a process of dehydration, filtration and smoldering to render the waste harmless.
• Michael Hoffmann, from the California Institute of Technology, plans to develop a solar-powered toilet. Solar cells generate enough power to process waste and turn it into fuel for electricity.
These innovations will not just help developing nations. In the American west and many parts of China, for example, a toilet that does not require potable water will alleviate water shortages.
The Gates Foundation hopes their grants will bring about a “cell phone” of sanitation – independent, convenient and beneficial.