Sanitation without sewers - new toilets 

Posted August 30, 2019.

Why it matters 2.3 billion people lack safe sanitation, and many die as a result
Key players
Duke University
University of South Florida
Biomass Controls
California Institute of Technology
Availability 1-2 years

Energy-efficient toilets can operate without a sewer system and treat waste on the spot.

About 2.3 billion people don’t have good sanitation. The lack of proper toilets encourages people to dump fecal matter into nearby ponds and streams, spreading bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause diarrhea and cholera. Diarrhea causes one in nine child deaths worldwide.

Now researchers are working to build a new kind of toilet that’s cheap enough for the developing world and can not only dispose of waste but treat it as well.

In 2011 Bill Gates created what was essentially the X Prize in this area—the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Since the contest’s launch, several teams have put prototypes in the field. All process the waste locally, so there’s no need for large amounts of water to carry it to a distant treatment plant.

Most of the prototypes are self-contained and don’t need sewers, but they look like traditional toilets housed in small buildings or storage containers. The NEW generator toilet, designed at the University of South Florida, filters out pollutants with an anaerobic membrane, which has pores smaller than bacteria and viruses. Another project, from Connecticut-based Biomass Controls, is a refinery the size of a shipping container; it heats the waste to produce a carbon-rich material that can, among other things, fertilize soil.

One drawback is that the toilets don’t work at every scale. The Biomass Controls product, for example, is designed primarily for tens of thousands of users per day, which makes it less well suited for smaller villages. Another system, developed at Duke University, is meant to be used only by a few nearby homes.

So the challenge now is to make these toilets cheaper and more adaptable to communities of different sizes. “It’s great to build one or two units,” says Daniel Yeh, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, who led the NEW generator team. “But to really have the technology impact the world, the only way to do that is mass-produce the units.” —Erin Winick

Reference:

Gates bill, "How we’ll invent the future," in Kurzweil Ray, "The nature of progress," August 20, 2019, February 27, 2019; New technology

George Rose, "Why I Wrote a Book About Human Waste," Slate, October 07, 2008.  George: Human waste 2008