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]
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.