Advanced search

Bill Gates challenges research team to reinvent the toilet

Bill Gates has given Dutch researchers the task of creating a toilet that works without links to water, sewage or power networks.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded Delft University of Technology a grant to develop a way of using microwaves to process human waste and create electricity.

The researchers hope the new toilet could be produced at an affordable cost for people in developing countries with limited access to reliable infrastructure.

Waste will be dried and then gasified using plasma created by microwaves. The resulting syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, will be fed into a solid oxide fuel-cell stack to generate electricity.

Delft’s Georgios Stefanidis, assistant professor of process intensification, said the process would generate enough power to become self-sufficient.

‘Part of the electricity produced will be used to activate plasma gasification, while heat recovered from the syngas stream and from the fuel-cell exhaust gas will be used for waste drying.

‘Preliminary calculations show that microwave plasma gasification may be energy self-sufficient, provided that the efficient transformation and high throughput of human waste matter can be obtained. It is also affordable.’

The foundation announced the grant yesterday at the AfricaSan conference in Rwanda as part of more than $40m in investments in its new water, sanitation and hygiene strategy.

‘To address the needs of the 2.6 billion people who don’t have access to safe sanitation, we not only must reinvent the toilet, we also must find safe, affordable and sustainable ways to capture, treat and recycle human waste,’ said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation’s Global Development Program.

Delft’s Prof Andrzej Stankiewicz said: ‘The current project presents an excellent example of how modern chemical engineering science serves not only the chemical process industries but also helps in resolving some crucial societal issues in the world.’


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wants Delft University to "reinvent" the toilet using microwaves and a solid oxide fuel stack

Readers' comments (10)

  • I believe that this has already been done in Japan.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • "... in developing countries with limited access to reliable infrastructure"

    So the proposal is to use technology and advanced knowledge in regions that have a dearth of both? Not too smart from a supposed genius.

    How about putting in Gobar Gas Generators, as described by Michael Yon in - but then no-one makes much money from those!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Composting toilets are a solution that has been in wide use since the 1970s. Manufactured and site built options exist.
    Cost and education are the real issues here. Potential for local manufacturing for economic benefits also exists with the right development plan.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • As PhilM said. Not too smart. In fact this technology-led solution could be the exact kind of 'AID' given by such as the World Bank etc. to cripple the very countries they purport to be helping.

    The type of organisation to tackle this in a sustainable and appropriate way, with sympathy for the local people's level of technology and resources would be the ITDG - Intermediate Technology Development Group, originally inspired by Ernst Schumacher.

    Whatever is developed and finally offered needs to be maintainable by local people and preferably manufactured and installed by them too. It should not be dependent on materials, spare parts and knowledge, available only from the 'donors', thus tying them in to a never-ending cycle of debt or further 'Aid' contributions.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Not only do developing countries need this solution so do we. Why do we move millions of gallons every day in large pipes when a solution must be there for the looking.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Not a good idea. Most of the people have an existing system of using solid waste as fertilizer and soil conditioner. It has been demonstrated that old black soil is due to this process and is very fertile.
    And as PhilM says the wrong technology in the wrong place. The third world is full of great up to date and even old technology laying unused for want of spare parts, power or technologists to use it. It's another sign of the west knowing what's best for the poor benighted savages.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Sounds like that technology would be better applied in countries like Australia - highly developed with an arid climate. Composting toilets work well and are lowtech enough for the developing countries and the benefits are more useful.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I agree entirely with the views that this is a high tech solution for developed ecomonies - not for the less industrialised regions that Mr & Mrs Gates are seeking to help.

    As a practicing Public Health Engineer, I can tell you just how much you pay for those wet-vectored disposal systems that we all depend upon. Anything that reduced the consequences of "Flush and forget" would be noticed (and welcomed) by householders in their utility charges.

    Perhaps some rate-payers would leave the difference in place and get their water company to make additional donations to WaterAid, where Mr & Mrs Gates would find their aspiration to assist being delivered in sack-loads.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Really really stupid idea, every day we throw away millions of gallons of raw sewage that could be used to generate gas/electricity and in doing so be converted into an organically safe liquid and solid fertilizer/soil improver. Every sewage works could be a power station and fertilizer factory. One of the main reasons this does not happen is that in the west we have been "educated" into believing that our poo contains harmfull bacteria (strange when you consider where it just came from) and that we need to pour vast amounts of expensive and massively polluting chemicals down the toilet to keep it "clean and safe" Profit rears its ugly head again, and what could be an asset is turned into a problem that we all pay daily to solve. As has been said above, the problem with Gobar gas generators is that no one but the people who use them profit from them! I read about these in the "Mother earth news book of homemade power" in the early 1970's! Mammon still rules I am afraid.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I think this is a good idea for Monterey County which is considering recycled water for drinking water; probably alright for showering, but who wants to drink pharmaceuticals

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say


Related videos

My saved stories (Empty)

You have no saved stories

Save this article