There are currently about 2.5 billion people — that's about 40 per cent of the world's population — who lack access to safe sanitation facilities. And that's why in 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offered a reward for an improved toilet — one that's cheap to produce and install, safe to use and, most importantly, hygienic. A year later, there was a winner: a team of researchers and engineers at the California Institute of Technology, led by Michael Hoffman, an engineer who has built his career on building innovative toilets for clients like the U.S. Navy and NASA. Now, their winning toilet has been manufactured and shipped to India for testing.
The Caltech toilet uses solar power to run an electrochemical reactor, which turns human waste into solid organic fertilizer (as well as hydrogen that can be stored and used to power the reactor when there's no sun). The water used in each flush is treated and pumped back up to a tank to be reused. And since there's no sewer connection needed, the whole thing can run by itself, off the grid, anywhere in the world. (You can watch a more detailed Time Magazine video about how it works here.)
These real-world, real-sewage tests are hugely important, not just for the project but for world health in general.
Without sanitation, people are forced to defecate in the open, which increases the risk of transmitting disease. According to the World Health Organization, the Ganges river in India gets 1.1 million litres of raw sewage dumped in it every minute. Just one gram of feces can contain 10 million different viruses, one million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 worm eggs. Transmitted diseases can include diarrhea, cholera, dysentery and typhoid, amongst others.
Also, access to proper toilets has been shown to increase school attendance, especially for girls. Women and girls also benefit from access to latrines for the protection they offer. According to the United Nations, inaccessible toilets make women and girls more susceptible to rape and violence, since they're often forced to defecate at night or walk long distances alone to the nearest bathroom. “Women and girls have particular sanitation needs when they are menstruating which are rarely discussed and considered,” says Catarina de Albuquerque, UN expert on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. “Menstruation remains a taboo in many cultures,” she explained “and, as a result, the ability to engage in a wide variety of activities – school, work, movement in general – while women and girls are menstruating is restricted when they lack access to an appropriate sanitation facility.”
This particular toilet — the prototype of which is actually being produced as a full bathroom, with the help of the bathroom plumbing and design company Kohler — aims to solve some of these problems by operating cheaply and efficiently wherever it's installed. Right now, it runs at a cost of about 11 cents per user, per day, but with further testing and adjustments, the team is hoping to make the toilet efficient enough to run at five cents per user, per day — the goal initially set by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And the whole setup is small enough to be transported in a shipping container, meaning it's highly mobile and easily installed almost anywhere.
While the toilet is relatively cheap to use, it's expensive to produce. But if Kohler and Caltech can get the costs down, it could be revolutionary.
"Look at the promise of delivering proper sanitation to parts of the world that will, let's face it, never have water or sewage infrastructure," says Rob Zimmerman, Kohler's senior channel manager for sustainability. "If that can be demonstrated, it's going to be one of the most significant breakthroughs of the 21st century."
Via Fast Company