After revolutionizing the computer world with Microsoft, Bill Gates is now looking to revolutionize the toilet.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently launched a "Reinvent the Toilet" competition and have already awarded $3 million to researchers at eight universities to redesign the porcelain throne. The challenge? Develop an economical toilet that is doesn't need to be connected to a sewer system, or to any water or electricity grid.
The program aims to address the plight of nearly 40 percent of the world's population who do not have access to flush toilets. Throughout the developing world, billions of people lack safe, reliable toilets.
President of the foundation's Global Development Program, Sylvia Mathews Burwell spoke last month at the 2011 AfricaSan Conference in Kigali. According to foundation press release, in her keynote address, Burwell 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.”
One design that's making a splash is a toilet that uses solar panel to power the pot's electrochemical system (photo, top). In it, electrodes generate chemical reactions that cleanse the bowl and turn organic waste into carbon dioxide and hydrogen that can be stored in a fuel cell for use at night.
Michael R. Hoffman,the professor of environmental science at the California Institute of Technology who is developing this solar toilet told the New York Times, "We can clean the waste water up to the same level as would come out of a treatment plant."
Hoffman,who received $400,000 for development, said prototypes of the solar toilet might cost as much as $5,000, but assured that prices would drop once commercial production got underway. He also said operational costs would sum to only a few cents a day.
Photo: Prototype concept for the self-contained, pv-powered domestic toilet and wastewater treatment system. Credit: Caltech/Brian Lee