Bill Gates Crowns Toilet Innovators At Sanitation Fair

Aug 15, 2012
Originally published on August 15, 2012 5:23 pm

This week, Bill Gates was at a summer fair in Washington State, but he was not eating deep-fried butter on-a-stick, or checking out livestock.

Gates was inspecting cutting-edge toilet technology on display at an event his foundation hosted in Seattle — the Reinvent the Toilet Fair.

The centerpiece of the exhibit, as Shots reported last week, was a competition between eight teams of engineers to develop a super toilet that runs on a shoestring and doesn't need water or a sewage system. Many of those toilets use fake poop for demonstration purposes.

Gates announced the winners of the competition on Tuesday. You can listen to Wendy Kaufman's report on All Thing Considered for more details from the scene.

A team from the California Institute of Technology, lead by environmental engineer Michael Hoffmann, won the top prize of $100,000 for a solar-powered toilet that produces hydrogen and electricity.

A group from Loughborough University in the U.K. took second place for a toilet that uses energy from the feces to decompose the waste and recover clean water.

And chemical engineers from University of Toronto grabbed third place for their technology, which sanitizes waste within 24 hours by dehydration and smoldering.

In contrast to these high-tech commodes, the traditional toilets we know so well are clunky relics. They haven't changed much since the 18th century and require between 1.6 and 3 gallons of water per flush and a hookup to a expensive sewage system.

They are also luxuries that most communities around the world don't have. Some 2.5 billion people lack clean, safe bathrooms; this costly sanitation problem kills nearly 1.5 million children annually.

Over the past two years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested nearly $150 million into improving global sanitation, Carl Hensman, a program officer at The Gates Foundation, tells Shots.

The next step, Hensman says, is to take the top-performing technologies at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair and start making larger scale pilots. The foundation's goal is to have one of these super toilets up and running in a community by the end of 2014 or 2015.

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One of the world's richest men wants to reinvent the toilet. That's right. Bill Gates says it's time for a radical redesign. He believes the current design doesn't meet the needs of the two and a half billion people who lack access to sanitation. NPR's Wendy Kaufman has this story on Gates' vision.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Bill Gates himself is quick to say that toilets are not something most people want to talk about.

BILL GATES: Oh, yeah. No, it's absolutely a topic that people shy away from.

KAUFMAN: But that's not the case for the scientists, engineers and designers who, this week, are crowding the halls of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. After beginning to fund innovation and big ideas in this area, the world's richest private philanthropy is holding what it calls a Reinvent the Toilet Fair.

CARL HENSMAN: As we're walking down the corridor, you see here, as well, Poop to Power. I love that name.

KAUFMAN: The foundation's Carl Hensman, a project manager, has stopped in front of an exhibit from the University of Colorado.

HENSMAN: They have a septic tank. They have locally sourced materials, so it's nothing they have to import in; it's things they can get at the local market. They combine them together, they drop them into the septic tank and the chemistry in the septic tank and the biology in the septic tank gives them electricity out.

KAUFMAN: Now, if you're evaluating proposals for new 21st century toilets, you have to find out if they really do the job, so the foundation has just purchased about 50 pounds of fake solid waste. We find it inside the refrigerator in the first floor's gleaming kitchen. Dozens and dozens of small, brown logs are neatly arranged on trays.

HENSMAN: Do you want to smell it? You'll recognize the smell from the restroom. Yeah?

KAUFMAN: The modern western toilet has been around for more than 200 years and it makes absolutely no sense in the third world. Bill Gates suggests that our squeamishness about the topic has kept us from devising an alternative and, beyond that, he says we haven't done a good job of connecting the dots.

GATES: You'll often hear that clean water is a key thing for health and that's absolutely true, but why is water a problem? It's when it's got human feces in it.

KAUFMAN: He calls sanitation the single most neglected area in efforts to improve the lives of the poor. Last year, the foundation challenged scientists at major universities worldwide to create an inexpensive, aesthetically pleasing toilet that transforms human waste into clean water and energy or other useful resources. It needs to operate off the grid with no sewer, water or electrical connection.

MICHAELHOFFMANN: You can go up the ladder if you'd like and you can see.

KAUFMAN: That's Michael Hoffmann, who headed up a team from Cal Tech. It won first prize in the competition for its solar-powered unit that generates electricity. Other teams are taking a different approach. One, for example, is using microwave technology to turn human waste into electricity. Another is creating biocharcoal.

RUTH COTTINGHAM: It's an amazing project to work on.

KAUFMAN: Ruth Cottingham and Christopher Buckley from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, are converting waste into fertilizer and hope to eventually produce water clean enough to drink.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: It's fascinating and there actually no limits to where one can go.

COTTINGHAM: And it's amazing to be able to work on something, as well, which is more futuristic and visionary and something that can be - really turn around the way people are doing sanitation completely.

KAUFMAN: The Gates Foundation's financial wake and its moral suasion on this issue is gratifying to Kenya's minister of water, irrigation and sanitation, Charity Kaluki Ngilu.

CHARITY KALUKI NGILU: Let me say that I'm extremely excited and happy to see some of the inventions that people have come up with here.

KAUFMAN: And she hopes they will help spur third world countries to invest more of their own resources in tackling a problem that affects 40 percent of the world's population.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.