COLUMN: Tomorrow’s toilets meet challenges

Reporter's Viewpoint

There might not be much point in reinventing the wheel, but reinventing the toilet could be a different story.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued a challenge to 22 universities around the globe to reinvent the toilet. The goal is to create an affordable, waterless and hygienic toilet for the developing world that doesn’t need to be connected to a sewer.

Upon first reading the challenge I thought, ‘wait a minute, isn’t this already being done?’ The composting toilet already exists and although not mainstream, it meets most of the criteria.

However, it looks like the challenge is trying to get people to design a toilet that not only composts waste, but generates power from the waste and recovers and treats urine to be used for cleaning, including handwashing.

I’m not too sure how comfortable I would be washing my hands with treated urine, although the power-generation ideas are intriguing.

The challenge was whittled down to eight submissions from universities around the globe.

There are several goals for the challenge. It includes creating a toilet to address issues for the 2.6 billion people who lack proper sanitation, developing a toilet that is hygienic and sustainable for the world’s poorest populations, has an operation cost of five cents per user per day, doesn’t release pollutants but generated energy, and recovers salt, water and nutrients.

It also aims at creating a toilet that can be used by entrepreneurs in poor urban settings as a sanitation business.

The Loughborough University team, from the U.K., wants to create a toilet that transforms the waste into a material for energy generation, soil conditioning or water for handwashing.

The Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands wants to create a process that uses microwave technology to transform the waste into electricity that creates carbon monoxide and hydrogen that is funnelled into a fuel cell for electricity generation.

The Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, in partnership with the industrial design company EOOS, is creating a system that recovers water for cleansing. The University of  Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa is designing one that recovers water and carbon dioxide.

Stanford University is proposing a design that decomposes the material at high temperatures and processes the waste into a type of biological charcoal. The University of Toronto’s department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry is working on a design that sanitizes waste within 24 hours and sanitizes urine with ultraviolet disinfection methods.

The California Institute of Technology wants to create a solar-powered toilet that breaks the waste into hydrogen. It is then stored in hydrogen fuel cells that can be used to provide backup energy sources.

And the eighth proposal from the National University of Singapore wants to create a system that treats the waste, energy and nutrients and recovers clean water.

Although some of the ideas sound similar, I applaud the move to create better and more useful ways to handle human waste. Using clean water for toilets seems like such a waste.

So much water is contaminated daily through home usage. I wish my home had a system that separated different streams of waste water, purifying and treating some for reuse in the home and diverting others for further treatment and energy production.

Water is a precious resource and human waste is contaminating too much of it as the two streams are mixing together.

As more development and strain on our natural resources continues, we will need to find better ways to handle waste in our society.

To check out the challenge, please go to