Close-up of a man reaching on the floor for a toilet paper roll.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is tackling real toilet problems that plague humankind. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/TheGiantVermin/Flickr)

Toilet problems are on Bill Gates’ mind. According to CNN, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is challenging the best and brightest minds to “reinvent the toilet.” World sanitation issues and difficulty treating human waste in the Third World has made reinventing the toilet a priority.

No toilet innovation since the 1700s

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s global development program, said via a press release that it’s high time toilet technology moved forward.

“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,” she said. “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.”

The foundation’s efforts to reinvent the toilet will include $41.5 million in grants for budding toilet engineers who are flush with ideas about how to modernize an invention that has largely remained the same since 1775. It saved millions of lives then, but lack of effective toilets is still killing millions of children today.

Cleaning away the grime of a growing world

An effective toilet sanitation system requires running water and a sewer system. As these key elements are largely absent in impoverished areas of the world – the World Health Organization estimates more than 2.5 billion people to have access to rudimentary toilets – the presence of human waste spreads disease.

Frank Rijsberman, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s director of water sanitation and hygiene, knows there’s a better way.

“We want to look at waste as a resource and recycle it,” Rijsberman said. “We think we can recycle the energy, the minerals and also the water. We want to reinvent the toilet that is cheap, that doesn’t cost more than a few pennies, that poor people want to use and that will recycle minerals, energy and water.”

Best toilet innovations

Some of the better ideas from among the Gates Foundation’s first eight grantees:

  • A toilet that recovers water and salt from feces and urine.
  • A toilet that generates electricity from waste. Microwaves create a plasma gas from waste that creates the electrical power.
  • A toilet that sanitizes feces within 24 hours to prevent the spread of infection. This is achieved through dehydration, filtration and smoldering the waste into harmless form.
  • A solar-powered toilet that turns waste into electrical energy.

These and more ideas will be applied in third-world countries as well as in the U.S. and Europe in places where water shortages are most common, said Rijsberman.

Creo makes state-of-the-art toilets

Sources

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: http://bit.ly/p4qVZs

CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/innovation/07/19/toilet.design.gates/

Seattle Times: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2015654114_gatessanitation19.html

World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs330/en/index.html

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