Don’t Forget to Flush Your Solar-Powered Toilet

A lot of people are betting on solar energy being the path to a cleaner future and Bill Gates is betting the toilet of the future for the developing world—and perhaps all of us—will be solar powered, reports Reuters.

“The world's leading private philanthropist handed a $100,000 prize to the California Institute of Technology on Tuesday for its work on a self-contained, sun-powered system that recycles water and breaks down human waste into storable energy."

"Gates is focusing on the need for a new type of toilet as an important part of his foundation's push to improve health in the developing world. Open defecation leads to sanitation problems that cause 1.5 million children under 5 to die each year, Gates said, and Western-style toilets are not the answer as they demand a complex sewer infrastructure and use too much water.”

MORE: Why Are Americans Flushing Old Growth Forests Down the Toilet?

The winners (there were three prizes awarded) took part in the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Science 2.0 explains that, “One year ago, the foundation issued a challenge to universities to design toilets that can capture and process human waste without piped water, sewer or electrical connections, and transform human waste into useful resources, such as energy and water, at an affordable price.”

“Teams are showcasing their prototypes and projects at a two-day event held at the foundation's headquarters in Seattle on August 14 and 15.” And this event isn’t just for a few sanitary-minded geeks. “The Reinvent the Toilet Fair is bringing together participants from 29 countries, including researchers, designers, investors, advocates, and representatives of the communities who will ultimately adopt these new inventions.”

“Loughborough University in the United Kingdom won the $60,000 second place prize for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water. University of Toronto in Canada won the third place prize of $40,000 for a toilet that sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water.”

The Guardian (Headline: “Poo power celebrated as solar toilet wins sanitation prize.” You gotta love the British.) points out that, “As many as 1.2 billion people practice what the UN describes as ‘open defecation.’ They go to the toilet behind bushes, in fields, in plastic bags or along railway tracks. The practice poses particular problems for women and girls, who can be subject to physical and verbal abuse or humiliation. According to the WHO, improved sanitation delivers up to $9 in social and economic benefits for every $1 invested because it increases productivity, reduces healthcare costs, and prevents illness, disability, and early death.”

The Daily Mail and others quoted Gates as saying, “Imagine what's possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead,” he said. “'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.”

Do you think solar-powered toilets will catch on in the developed world?

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Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |