Kirsten Korosec | August 16, 2012,
Flush toilets get the job done. They also require a network of piped water, sewer and electrical connections, the kind of vast infrastructure developing nations don’t have, and likely won’t, for years.
That translates into a potentially lethal situation for the 2.5 billion people in the world who don’t have access to modern sanitation. Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, a competition aimed at developing a new generation of Johns, crappers and loos that can capture and process human waste and turn it into useful resources, such as energy and water.
The end goal is to improve sanitation in a world where 1.5 million children die every year due to diarrhea caused by food and water tainted with fecal matter.
The competitors could design just about whatever kind of toilet they wanted. The toilets just had to be affordable and able to operate without traditional modern infrastructure such as piped water, sewer or electrical connections. The Gates Foundation brought in 50 gallons of fake feces made from soybeans and rice for the demonstrations, which were held this week in Seattle.
And the winners are …
The California Institute of Technology earned the $100,000 first prize for designing a solar-powered toilet (pictured below) that generates hydrogen and electricity.
The toilet uses a solar panel to power an electrochemical reactor. The reactor breaks down water and human waste into fertilizer to be used for agriculture, and hydrogen, which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells as energy. The treated water can be reused to flush the toilet or for irrigation.
Loughborough University in the UK won the $60,000 second prize for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals and clean water. The University of Toronto won the third-place prize of $40,000 for a toilet the sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water.
Eawag, or the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, and EOOS received a $40,000 special recognition prize for their design of a toilet user interface.(See photo to the right).
The toilet challenge isn’t over. The Gates Foundation has awarded grants to four universities to develop the 2.0 toilets for the next round of the challenge.