Bill Gates Wants You to Build Him a New Toilet

Commodes aren't something I think much about, unless I can't find one when I -- or one of my kiddos -- need it most. So I was shocked to learn that two-thirds of the world's population doesn't even have access to toilets. Worse? One and a half million children die every year because of diarrhea spread due to the same reason. Truly horrific. Can you imagine losing a child due to lack of toilets?

Enter the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has launched a challenge to reinvent the porcelain thrones of today to make them more accessible to the rest of the world.

You won't believe what's being proposed so far ...


The hope is that with a redesign of the 200+-year-old invention of today's modern toilet, some of the suffering of the world is all about to change. To get there, the foundation is offering up $41.5 million worth of grants. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation's global development program, said:

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 ... 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.

So why does the B&M Foundation not just donate a bunch of commodes? It's too expensive for people in the developing world; it requires water and a sewer-system hook-up, which aren't always available; and it does nothing to actually treat human waste, said the Foundations's director of water sanitation and hygiene, Frank Rijsberman.

Instead, check out some of the new inventions in the works:

  • Georgios Stefanidis, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, is working on a toilet that will generate electricity from waste, which will be "gasified into plasma" using microwaves. That gas can be used to generate electricity, according to the proposal.
  • Michael Hoffmann, from the California Institute of Technology, plans to develop a solar-powered toilet. Solar cells generate enough power to process waste and turn it into fuel for electricity.
  • Yu-Ling Chen, from the University of Toronto, is trying to make a toilet that will "sanitize feces within 24 hours" so human waste doesn't transmit disease through a community. Chen plans to use a process of dehydration, filtration, and smoldering to render the waste harmless.
  • Andrew Cotton, from Loughborough University in the UK, is making a toilet that will "recover water and salt from feces and urine."

Some of these seem very inventive. I admit I was even a bit hopefully that they would have applications, not just for use for the third world countries that need them, but even for applications in my suburban Seattle home. 

Seriously, with summer boredom hitting, who else has a kid that would get a huge thrill out of nuking his poop to power up his Xbox?


Photo courtesy of by RobW_/Flickr

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