"Politicians and leaders worldwide don't like to be associated with toilets," a UN official told The Economist, "even state-of-the-art toilets. This sanitation stigma distorts international and national development agendas." Thankfully Bill Gates has got enough FU money to do whatever he wants, and he realizes that one of the things the world needs is a better toilet, as unsexy as it sounds.
A staggering 40% of Earth's population do not have access to basic sanitation, and 1.5 million children are dying each year as a direct result. The Gates Foundation's Reinventing the Toilet Challenge recognizes that the solution is not a fancier Toto, but something that:
- Addresses the failures of the 18th-century toilet, which is not meeting the current needs of 2.5 billion people who lack access to sanitation
- Is hygienic and sustainable for the world's poorest populations
- Has an operational cost of $0.05 per user, per day
- Does not discharge pollutants, but instead generates energy and recovers salt, water and other nutrients
- Is designed for use in a single family home
- Does not rely on water to flush waste or a septic system to process and store waste
- Is the basis for a sanitation business that can be easily adopted by local entrepreneurs living in poor urban settings
Last year CalTech researcher Michael Hoffman was one of eight parties to win a $400,000 grant to build a prototype of his solar-powered toilet, and earlier this month, Gates crowned him the winner of the challenge (garnering him an extra 100 large). Hoffman's design is brilliant: A solar panel powers an electrochemical reactor of his own design. That reactor pulls the salt out of urine and produces chlorine, which is subsequently used to flush and disinfect the toilet. But the reactor also extracts hydrogen gas from the waste, and that gas can then be stored in fuel cells to power the toilet when the sun don't shine. Anything left over can be used as fertilizer.
Tellingly, and somewhat depressingly, Hoffman's design isn't new: He first proposed it to NASA in the early '90s for use on the ISS, and they passed. But thanks to the Gates Foundation, chances are higher that the impoverished in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will get to one day use a toilet designed for astronauts.