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The Toilet Of The Future Will Turn Poop Into Power

You can't dump on this idea: A new $40 million initiative by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will help develop futuristic toilets that transform human waste into usable electricity and fuel.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced on Tuesday that they are giving away more than $42 million to develop new, innovative toilets for use in the world's poorest regions. Many of the scientists working on these projects have science-fictiony proposals such as transforming human feces into charcoal and microwave-powered toilets that can generate electricity from gasified human waste.

But while poo-charcoal and power-generating waste might like sound weird ideas, they could revolutionize daily life for millions. "The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believes in the power of innovation, and we focus our funding where we can have the biggest impact in helping people lead healthy, productive lives. No innovation has saved more lives in the last 200 years than the flush toilet and sewer system," said Frank Rijsberman, director of water, sanitation and hygiene for the Gates Foundation. "But we need new approaches to ensure that the 40 percent of humanity without access to improved sanitation has a safe and affordable way to go." 

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Gates Foundation's Global Development program, made the announcement at a conference in Kigali, Rwanda. According to Burwell, $3 million is being given away in 2011 to eight teams developing eco-friendly, no-sewer-required toilets. Another $41 million in grants are being given away to, in her words, "spark new innovations in sanitation."

One Gates Foundation-funded project will build toilets that transform feces into charcoal. A team led by Loughborough University's M. Sohail is developing a toilet that could safely turn human waste into charcoal, salt, and clean water. The toilets transform feces into usable fuel through "a process combining hydrothermal carbonization of fecal sludge followed by combustion." Most importantly, the toilets don't need to be connected to the electric grid or a generator for the process—they are instead powered by the heat generated through the fecal combustion itself. As a side effect, the generators also recover usable water and salt from bodily waste.

Another super-toilet being built by a Dutch team can generate electricity from bodily functions. The Delft University of Technology's Georgios D. Stefanidis is leading a group whose toilet generates electricity when in use. These toilets use custom-made microwave technology to gasify human waste into plasma, which yields syngas—a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Syngas can then be fed into a fuel cell stack for energy generation. Enough electricity could hypothetically be generated by a single toilet to serve multiple households.

Or how about a toilet that can give a village an entire human-waste-charcoal production plant? Brian Von Herzen of the Climate Foundation and Stanford University's Reginald E. Mitchell are building a prototype community-scale charcoal production plant in Kenya that can process two tons of human bodily waste daily. The self-contained system will transform human waste into a type of charcoal called biochar through decomposition at high temperatures without oxygen. However, biochar can't be used as a fuel source—it is instead used for agricultural purposes.

Another toilet will be able to repower hydrogen fuel cells through fecal matter. Michael R. Hoffmann of Caltech and his team have proposed a solar-powered toilet that uses sunlight to power a small reactor that breaks down urine and feces into hydrogen gas. This hydrogen gas can then be stored in hydrogen fuel cells to provide a backup energy source.

If even just a few of these new super-toilets end up being cheap, usable ways to answer nature's call in the developing world, life in some of the world's poorest regions just got a lot better.

[Image: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the leadership of the Loughborough University team based on incorrect information received. Fast Company regrets the error.

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  • Rickland

    Bill and Melinda Gates truely are American heros of our time. And this sounds like a super endeavor but, curious to know how much $ will it cost to make one of these Super Toilets. With 45 million  pledged for producing these toilets, how many will that make? Do they come with detatiled "How to Use" instructions? Hydrogen Fuel Cells need security teams, right? Just playing Devil's Advocate.

  • Fredwhansen

    Hi Bill and Melinda
                      Another way to create revenue to reduce the deficit would be to install
    pay toilets on Capitol Hill. We all know congress is full of crap.

  • FutrHapy

    Acquiring as many new patents in as varied fields as possible all the while helping people whom God seems to have forgotten will continue to be Mr. Gates' legacy. A big God Bless to the Bill & Melinda Foundation for making nothing untouchable and everything achievable one small step at a time!

  • jack

    i agree that we help other nations. but at the same time how do i ad this technolegy to my backyard. taking my very on shit to power my fan my lights help please

  • Carolyn

    We may not have these new fangled toilets available to us, but we could all start using composting toilets which have been around for many years. 

    The best composting toilets separate the liquids from the solids,
    which allows the solids to break down faster. Then the compost can be
    used to fertilize fruit trees (or other crops that don't touch the ground), thus producing food for you.
    Old-fashioned outhouses are not a good idea, oxygen never gets
    incorporated into the mixture, so the wastes don’t readily break down,
    and they pollute the groundwater.