The Toilet Of The Future Will Turn Poop Into Power

You can't dump on this idea: A new $40 million initiative by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will help develop futuristic toilets that transform human waste into usable electricity and fuel.

Mozambique toilet

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced on Tuesday that they are giving away more than $42 million to develop new, innovative toilets for use in the world's poorest regions. Many of the scientists working on these projects have science-fictiony proposals such as transforming human feces into charcoal and microwave-powered toilets that can generate electricity from gasified human waste.

But while poo-charcoal and power-generating waste might like sound weird ideas, they could revolutionize daily life for millions. "The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believes in the power of innovation, and we focus our funding where we can have the biggest impact in helping people lead healthy, productive lives. No innovation has saved more lives in the last 200 years than the flush toilet and sewer system," said Frank Rijsberman, director of water, sanitation and hygiene for the Gates Foundation. "But we need new approaches to ensure that the 40 percent of humanity without access to improved sanitation has a safe and affordable way to go." 

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Gates Foundation's Global Development program, made the announcement at a conference in Kigali, Rwanda. According to Burwell, $3 million is being given away in 2011 to eight teams developing eco-friendly, no-sewer-required toilets. Another $41 million in grants are being given away to, in her words, "spark new innovations in sanitation."

One Gates Foundation-funded project will build toilets that transform feces into charcoal. A team led by Loughborough University's M. Sohail is developing a toilet that could safely turn human waste into charcoal, salt, and clean water. The toilets transform feces into usable fuel through "a process combining hydrothermal carbonization of fecal sludge followed by combustion." Most importantly, the toilets don't need to be connected to the electric grid or a generator for the process—they are instead powered by the heat generated through the fecal combustion itself. As a side effect, the generators also recover usable water and salt from bodily waste.

Another super-toilet being built by a Dutch team can generate electricity from bodily functions. The Delft University of Technology's Georgios D. Stefanidis is leading a group whose toilet generates electricity when in use. These toilets use custom-made microwave technology to gasify human waste into plasma, which yields syngas—a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Syngas can then be fed into a fuel cell stack for energy generation. Enough electricity could hypothetically be generated by a single toilet to serve multiple households.

Or how about a toilet that can give a village an entire human-waste-charcoal production plant? Brian Von Herzen of the Climate Foundation and Stanford University's Reginald E. Mitchell are building a prototype community-scale charcoal production plant in Kenya that can process two tons of human bodily waste daily. The self-contained system will transform human waste into a type of charcoal called biochar through decomposition at high temperatures without oxygen. However, biochar can't be used as a fuel source—it is instead used for agricultural purposes.

Another toilet will be able to repower hydrogen fuel cells through fecal matter. Michael R. Hoffmann of Caltech and his team have proposed a solar-powered toilet that uses sunlight to power a small reactor that breaks down urine and feces into hydrogen gas. This hydrogen gas can then be stored in hydrogen fuel cells to provide a backup energy source.

If even just a few of these new super-toilets end up being cheap, usable ways to answer nature's call in the developing world, life in some of the world's poorest regions just got a lot better.

[Image: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the leadership of the Loughborough University team based on incorrect information received. Fast Company regrets the error.

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  • Marindo Palar

    I also want to have that integrated system in my hometaown. How can I get fund for that project from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ? What procedure to followed ? Is there any people can inform me ?.
    Thank You

  • Marindo Palar

    That Toilet-Biogas integrated system already build in Indonesia. This system operate in the public toilet in a public bus station. The biogas is flowed to 60 houses behind that station.

  • Sanyu Nagenda

    WHOA! This article is SO exciting. I mean for a place in the year we call "2011"...we sure ain't that futuristic. Now these toilets are john's to enjoy!

    By gawd, if we could only be so innovative in all that we do. And ideas are free to make people! Especially innovative ones. Keep 'em comin'!

  • Geri Stengel

    What a relief! Someone is thinking about reinvention rather than sticking to what has worked in the past but doesn’t work so well in the water-deprived present or future. We in the urban/suburban west often think our way is the only/best way of doing something because it has worked for us. But using new technology to replace expensive infrastructure, creating a whole new way of dealing with a common problem is just what entrepeneurs do. Hat’s off to Gates Foundation for both the concept and the video.

  • Pamela Enz

    Here's to poop and a new future!  I find this article exciting.  The infrastructure of the cities in the United States is getting old and will all need to be replaced in the next generation - wouldn't it be lovely if we could figure out what to do with our poop and be able to put those resources to a different use?

  • Andrew Skeehan

    Bill Gates heads up tweet was titled "Toilet 2.0". Who says techies don't have a sense of humor? And the introductory video discusses this uncomfortable subject simply, accurately, and lightly. I still squirmed a bit -- childhood upbringing, you know.
    Delivery infrastructure is cheap compared to sewage systems, and as the video points out, Western systems depend on large amounts of water to work. But waste disposal is crucial to eliminating diseases like dysentery, as bluntly illustrated in the musical Book of Mormon: "Shit go in da watah, Watah go in da cup. Cup go to da thirsty, Shit go to da stomach, Blood come out da butt."Huzzah for the Gates Foundation! Frank Herbert's Fremen, the desert natives in his novel "Dune", would be proud of you.Earlier this month, Matt Damon's water campaign was featured. Now this. "May you live in interesting times" is supposed to be a curse... a thought we need to re-examine.

  • Dojo Chef

    Anna don't be such a stick in the mud. Did you watch the video? Very funny. 1. This is much better news than 1/2 of the stuff the media is showcasing these days. 2. When is the last time you gave away $41 million to an idea? You would be lucky to be a part of the team that took poop and turned it into energy. Remember it was probably years before people finally stopped eating with there hands. Cars weren't allowed in big city's at one time because it spooked horses. And lastly NASA was created to go to the moon. If you would have had an idea to go to the moon 1940 people would have put you in the funny house.

    I say push the envelope. If they can turn my loaf of bread, kids in the pool, or night submarine into energy to power up your computer and give fresh water to plants than I want to see this SH%t. Bring it. Ship it. This country and country's around the world need this crap.  

  • Anna Zander

    So Gates and others are reinventing the wheel---including wheels that didn't work out before. Can tech companies do due diligence on these topics? These schemes have been tried and found only to work on certain scales, scales not commonly found in situations of need. This will absorb a lot of media bandwidth for awhile, then it will be followed up with reports on the unfortunate discovery the economics didn't work out. Stick with the practices that work. Don't be all Silicon Valley and not research your topic.

  • Andrew Skeehan

    Ms Zander: I reviewed the RFP issued by the Gates Foundation, and found it to be rigorous, realistic, and reality based. A great deal of research was clearly done before its release several months ago. While the ideal would be a family unit, the RFP accepts that communal facilities may be the only functional and/or economical approach. 
    I've seen the ravages of cholera and dysentery first hand. I've helped drill wells to deliver fresh water, and knew we weren't tackling the whole cycle. Your philosophy seems to be "If at first you don't succeed, STOP." 

  • nealu

    Anna, as the author of this article, I've got to disagree entirely. The fact that more than $40 million in funds have been disbursed to improve third-world sanitation is not "reinventing the wheel" -- it's one of the most interesting news stories in international aid so far this year.

    We do research our topics here at Fast Company; both my editors and myself felt this would be a story our readership would find informative. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it.


  • Gene Moe

    I reviewed the RFP and many of the funded "research" projects. Many which have been evaluated before. Many which are not practical in a region where there is little or no hard currency for O&M costs of such equipment. I have worked in the water/wastewater industry for over 30 years as an electrical/control engineer and, while I like that this is being shaken up, I think the items I have seen appear to do a lot of retracing tracks already travelled. I have been working in Guatemala with engineers without borders for a few years on renewable power for a village and know some of the challenges faced in developing countries. The nice thing about the approach is it is not looking to improve a device used in countries with the extensive infrastructure but hopefully with develop a product that can be cost effective in a desert/mountain/forest or any inhabited area on the planet. I agree the wheel is not being reinvented but some of the same roads are being travelled that lead to places not practical for the intended purpose.