Researchers from China, Switzerland, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and California have flocked to Seattle this week for the "Reinvent the Toilet Fair," a two-day showcase hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Forget the bathroom humor. This is serious shit.
In a YouTube video calling for a "toilet revolution," the foundation called for "new ideas to help reduce disease and find new ways to turn crap into valuable stuff, like fuel, fertilizer, and fresh water."
The problem was put succinctly by Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, in a tweet this week: "4 out of 10 people don’t have a safe way to poop - that’s 2.6 billion!"
Gates took on the mission of building a better toilet a year ago. As he recently told the Times of India, 1.5 million children die each year due to severe diarrhea caused by poor sanitation because they lack the kind of toilets that affluent countries take for granted.
"Finding a new toilet design that is as good as the flush toilet should be possible. It does not exist now," Gates said. "That's why we have been putting in money asking people to design a new toilet."
And not just any kind of toilet. As All Things Digital explained, "The toilets have to be hygienic and sustainable, discharge no pollutants, generate energy, recover nutrients and only need a tiny amount of water. Oh yeah, and they also need to have a cost of operation of a nickel per person per day."
In other words, "Reinventing the Toilet" was no job for a plumber.
Last year, the Gates Foundation awarded $400,000 in grants to eight universities to help them develop a better way to go. On Tuesday, the grant recipients gathered to report their progress.
"Two-hundred years ago we had the invention of the flush toilet and we've really not done anything in the engineering of the toilet since then," Carl Hensman, who heads the foundation's water sanitation and hygiene program, told MyNorthwest.com. He described one suggested method called "hydrothermal carbonization."
That's "a really big term that really represents a pressure cooker," he said. "What you do is take the fecal material and the urine and you'll essentially cook it under pressure and the material you get out of that has an energy you can use to fuel your cooker or you can actually use it as a fertilizer as well."
A team at Cal Tech wants to use solar power to break down feces and urine into hydrogen gas that could then be used as a backup power source at night.
At Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, scientists have another idea: microwave human waste into electricity.
Hensman said he hopes the various ideas can be combined to find one ultimate solution that can be put into practice in the field.
"There are pieces of each of their technologies that can be combined,"he said. "That's what we're really looking for is how can we pull everybody together to sort the solution out."