Monday, November 26, 2012

Next toilet innovation; no piped water or sewer

By Esther Nakkazi
Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put up a $3 million grant to reinvent the toilet, as a stand-alone unit, hygienic, safe, with no piped-in water or a sewer connection—all for less than 5 cents a day.

Eight universities, each with a grant of $400,000 got into the competition, one of these based in Africa, the University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa and in August this year, exhibited their innovations in the USA.

Toilets from the reinvent the toilet challenge do not discharge pollutants, are waterless and with no septic system, generate energy and recover salt, water, and nutrients from the waste.

They can also be easily be adopted by local entrepreneurs for a sanitation business as the operational cost per user is only 5 cents ($0.05) a day.

Three of the toilet innovations up for the challenge transform feaces into biological charcoal or biochar, using a technology that decomposes the human waste at high temperatures without oxygen. The produced biochar would be combusted and the heat generated used to recover water and salts from the feaces and urine.

The self-contained toilet system, using this technology, developed by Stanford University and the Climate Foundation in US, will be shipped before the close of the year to a Nairobi slum to process two tons of human waste daily, said a statement from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Part of the strategy of reinventing the toilet also involves gathering what people want and measuring if it really works. So participating teams have to a duty to work in close collaboration with local communities in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia where the burden of unsafe sanitation is greatest. 

The toilets should also spur behavior change, improving hygiene and stopping open defecation done by more than a billion people in the developing world.

Four other toilet innovations will use technology that will disinfect urine using ultra-violet light and boiling the urine under pressure to recover highly purified water.
The University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, toilet system is designed to recover water and carbon dioxide from urine in community bathrooms and extrude feces into thin strands for faster drying and stabilisation.

A solar-powered toilet by the California Institute of Technology in the US, will generate hydrogen and electricity. This toilet will have a solar panel that will produce enough power for the electrochemical reactor that will break down water and human waste into hydrogen gas. It will be interesting for the winning toilet to be adopted in the developing world.

The Gates Foundation announced the reinventing the toilet challenge, for Universities, in April 2011, at the third African Conference on Sanitation and Hygiene, AfricaSan, in Kigali, Rwanda calling for new ideas and innovations for a toilet.

The current flush toilet was invented over 200 years ago, and it has been able to reach only one-third of the world, leaving more than a billion people to open defecation and diseases caused by unsafe sanitation leading to half of all hospitalizations in the developing world.    

The World Health Organization (WHO) says improved sanitation can produce up to $9 for every $1 invested by increasing productivity, reducing health care costs, and preventing illness, disability, and early death.

Reducing by half the number of people who don’t have access to basic sanitation is a key target of the United Nations’ 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

According to WHO access to safe sanitation would reduce child diarrhea by 30 percent and significantly increases school attendance especially for girls, who often miss work or school when they are menstruating and risk sexual assault when they are forced to defecate in the open or use public restrooms. 

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