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Gates Foundation backs toilet pioneers

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced the winners of this year’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, handing over a US$100,000 first prize to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, for work on a solar-powered toilet (right) that recycles water and generates hydrogen and electricity (see press release).

Toilets are a serious problem for the 2.6 billion people who lack adequate sanitation facilities, and for the 1.1. billion who have no access to them at all. Coming up with better ways to deal with human waste is a major priority for global development, as discussed in a recent Nature Comment, ‘The bottom line‘.

Toilet design has not changed much since 1775, when flush toilets were first patented. But most of the world does not have access to the plumbing required for flushing — and even in developed countries, conventional toilets consume a lot of water and energy. Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenged researchers around the world to rethink toilet design, to develop models that do not need centralized plumbing and treatment facilities and that are able to recycle wastes into energy and usable products. Eight universities stepped up to the challenge, and their prototypes and projects were showcased at a two-day event in Seattle, Washington, this week.

The Reinvent the Toilet Fair brought together participants from 29 countries, including researchers, designers, investors and representatives of the communities who will ultimately use the new inventions. At the event, Loughborough University, UK, was awarded the $60,000 second-place prize for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals and clean water, and the University of Toronto in Canada won the third-place prize, of $40,000, for a toilet that sanitizes faeces and urine while transforming waste products into resources and clean water.

Toilet-design challenges are not limited to simply reducing water consumption and generating energy from wastes. Other competitors at the forum presented latrines that use insects to help decompose faeces; toilets that trap disease-carrying flies; and safety systems for improved sanitary handling of decomposing faeces. Cultural considerations were also important to the discussions, as usability is paramount: no toilet will work if people won’t use it or it isn’t affordable.

“Imagine what’s possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead,” Bill Gates said in a statement. “Many of these innovations will not only revolutionize sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on traditional flush toilets in wealthy nations.”

The foundation simultaneously announced funding in the second round of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, with grants totalling nearly $3.4 million. Grants were awarded to Cranfield University, UK; Eram Scientific Solutions Pvt. Ltd. of Thiruvananthapuram, India; the Research Triangle Institute of Durham, North Carolina and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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