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Forget About Mousetraps. Can We Build a Better Toilet?

March 19, 2014
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Forget About Mousetraps. Can We Build a Better Toilet?
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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation encourages a redesign of this bathroom staple.

Some everyday objects are so basic that you might think they couldn’t be improved upon. Like, for example, the humble toilet.

But The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is betting that scientists can build a better toilet. In 2012, the foundation chose 16 teams to participate in its “Reinventing the Toilet Challenge,” gave them $777,000 in grant money, and sent them off to reinvent the toilet.

One of the hopefuls is a group from the University of Colorado (CU), led by environmental engineering professor Karl Linden. Their innovation? A solar-powered potty. Now, their toilet is ready for its world debut: the team shipped a functional prototype to New Delhi, India, where it will appear in the second annual Reinvent the Toilet Fair on March 22.

Linden told Elizabeth Hernandez of the Boulder Daily Camera that his team’s toilet uses solar energy to convert solid waste into “a sanitary, harmless charcoal-like material that can be used for heating or fertilizing.” Meanwhile, a “urine diverting” feature heats the feces to a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius, killing any potential pathogens and making the resulting fertilizer safe for use. “Obviously, people at fairgrounds don’t want real feces present, so we’re going to make synthetic waste products,” Linden told Hernandez.

If the CU team’s work is judged a success at the fair, they will gain additional funding that will allow them to improve the cost-effectiveness of their design and cope with the problem of generating solar power on cloudy days. “It’s a pretty incredible experience to be able to actually build something that’s physically real because a lot of the work we do in the lab is studying concepts and theories and advancing science that way,” Linden said. And if the team’s toilet lives up to its promise, it’s definitely an innovation that shouldn’t be flushed down the drain.

MORE:How San Francisco Got Its Residents to Care About Sewers

 

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