Gates Foundation: Funding the Toilets of the Future

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Using the restroom is something that’s easy to take for granted. However, according to the Gates Foundation, four out of 10 people around the world “don’t have a safe way to poop.” The flush toilet, which has existed in essentially the same form since 1775, is long due for an update.
A year ago, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $4,000,000 in grants to eight universities to create a safe, efficient, near-waterless toilet — one that costs less than five cents per user per day. This week in Seattle, the Reinvent the Toilet fair has been showing off the inventors’ creations.

The competition is a big deal, the foundation says. According to its website, 2.6 billion people lack access to sanitary facilities, and sanitation problems contribute to the deaths of 1.5 million of children under the age of 5 every year, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. “Reinventing the toilet can save millions of lives and help end poverty.”

(READ: Water Scarcity; Rio Climate Summit: Top 1o Priorities for a Planet in Peril)

The winner of the challenge? Caltech, which took home a $100,000 prize. Led by professor Michael Hoffman, the Caltech toilet runs on solar power, and breaks waste down into power-generating hydrogen.

Reuters reports:

“..a solar panel produces power for an electrochemical reactor that breaks down feces and urine into hydrogen gas, which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells to provide a back-up energy source for night operation or use in low-sunlight conditions.”

Gates Foundation

The second and third place prizes were awarded to the UK’s Loughborough University and Canada’s University of Toronto; both universities had designs that turned excrement into usable resources and would sanitize waste.

Bill Gates has already announced four more grants, totaling $3.4 million, for another round of further research into toilet innovation.

“Imagine what’s possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead,” Reuters reported Gates saying Tuesday. “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.”

Gates hopes to have a working toilet-for-the-future installed around the world in the next two to three years.

MORE: Melinda Gates Launches Global Crusade for Contraception