The Toilet Challenge

In our textbook, Modern Principles, Tyler and I write:

In the United States, diarrhea is a pain, an annoyance, and of course an embarrassment. In much of the developing world, diarrhea is a killer, especially of children. Every year 1.8 million children die from diarrhea. To prevent the deaths of these children we do not need any scientific breakthroughs, nor do we need new drugs or fancy medical devices. What these children need most is one thing: economic growth.

Economic growth brings piped water and flush toilets, which together cut infant mortality from diarrhea by 70 percent or more.

Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation think that some scientific breakthroughs are needed and they are putting millions into the Toilet Challenge a new project to build a better toilet.

“No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet,” Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation’s global development program, said in a statement. “But it did not go far enough. It only reached one-third of the world. What we need are new approaches. New ideas. In short, we need to reinvent the toilet.”

So what is wrong with the current commode?

It’s too expensive for people in the developing world; it requires water and a sewer-system hook-up, which aren’t always available; and it does nothing to actually treat human waste, said Frank Rijsberman, the foundation’s director of water sanitation and hygiene.

Gates is to be credited with taking on an important and unsung task. Some of the ideas he has spent money on, however, seem to be highly unrealistic. Consider:

Professor Georgios Stefanidis and his team at Delft University of Technology propose to develop a toilet system that will apply microwave technology to transform human waste into electricity. The waste will be gasified using plasma, which is created by microwaves in tailor-made equipment. This process will yield syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2). The syngas will then be fed to a solid oxide fuel cell stack for electricity generation. This toilet system will be able to serve single households or groups of households.

My rule is that any society capable of managing and maintaining such a system will already have flush toilets (either that or they live on the space station).


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