Bill Gates Helps Reinvent the Toilet

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Bill Gates tours the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle. Photo: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Bill and Melinda Gates want to harness the power of our excrement.

No, seriously. And when you bring that idea to some of the world’s most inventive thinkers, it turns into innovation that could actually do some good for the environment and therefore, human health.

Earlier this month, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a fair in which universities and other research facilities competed to reinvent the toilet. A prototype for a throne that turns human waste into energy won first prize. The solar-powered toilet, which earned the California Institute of Technology the $100,000 prize, turns urine and feces into hydrogen gas, which are then stored in fuel cells to be used as a secondary energy source for dark or low light conditions.

Bill Gates, Reinvent the Toilet

A look at the California Institute of Technology's winning toilet prototype, which generates energy from human waste and the sun. Photo: Michael Hanson, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Here in the western world, there doesn’t seem to be an apparent need for a spiffy new toilet. Ours do the trick, but according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “2.6 billion people don’t have a safe and affordable way to poop.” 1.1 billion of those people don’t use toilets at all, the foundation says. Eighty percent of human waste finds its way directly into streams and rivers, which contaminates fresh water for drinking and bathing. “Off-the-grid” toilets like Caltech’s invention can recover the resources from feces, eventually leading to 100 percent waste processing, the foundation claims.

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“Imagine what’s possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead,” Bill Gates says in a press release. “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.”

It’s all a part of the foundation’s Global Development Program. The program’s waste-centric initiative has committed $370 million toward developing safe sanitation for the developing world.

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