Business, Economics and Jobs

Bill Gates reinvents the toilet


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave eight universities a total of $42 million in research grants to invent a waterless toilet for poverty-stricken regions throughout Africa. One prototype involves separating urine into water and nutrients. This woman stands in front of a dry toilet that uses a more primitive version of the urine separation system.


Rajesh Jantilal

Bill Gates is going to “reinvent the toilet.”

That's right, as part of his efforts to help Africa achieve better health, the Microsoft billionaire is funding efforts to design a environmentally beneficial toilets to replace the 18th-century toilets that the developed world takes for granted. 

That will be a relief for 2.6 billion people, many living in Africa, who are forced to take care of business out in the open, due to a lack of good latrines. Millions get sick every year because of the unhealthy conditions.

To solve such an unsanitary issue, the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation financially encouraged researchers at eight universities earlier this month to devise a new type of stand alone toilet that can function in areas without extra water and without any electricity. The toilets must find innovative ways so that human waste can be used to create its own energy and water, salt and nutrients can be recovered from sludge. On top of that challenge, researchers must invent toilets that cost less than 5 cents a day to use.

The affordable cost of the new toilet is extremely important to its success. Right now, many African families cannot afford to use public toilets twice a day at a cost of about 13 cents. Instead, they leave the waste in holes or pots in the yard. 

Even where latrines already exist in shantytowns, residents must take turns emptying the sewage pits weekly with their bare hands. In Kenya, men fill large oil drums with feces and sloppily dump it all into a nearby river, which in turn pollutes that water for all downstream, reports the Associated Press.

Since many people will share the new toilets, and the pile of excrement will grow rapidly, there must be some method of disposing of or compacting the human waste products safely.

Eight universities are sharing the $42 million grant to raise the standards of sanitation in African communities while reducing the spread of bacteria-transmitted diseases through direct contact with human feces. These related diseases, such as cholera, kill 1.5 million children every year.

Here's what three of the eight universities have proposed as solutions

1. The California Institute of Technology plans to use solar panels to provide energy for a reactor that will break down the waste into hydrogen vapor. This gas can serve as a fuel source itself for people who need to use the bathroom at night to still have electric light. 

2. The Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology will design a toilet that separates urine from other human waste. Clean water is then extracted from the urine, which people can use to wash their hands when they are done relieving themselves. The whole process will be done on-site. 

3. Loughborough University in the United Kingdom proposes a toilet prototype that will change human waste into charcoal, water and salt through a heat and pressure combustion. Electricity will be powered through the heat created during the combustion. 

The five other universities each with unique designs are: University of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa, Stanford University, University of Toronto, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the National University of Singapore. 

People living in First World countries have the mentality that going to the bathroom should be out of sight, out of mind. But the need for environmentally sustainable toilets in Africa is a reminder to all that disposing of our waste should not be wasteful.