Forget about software. Bill Gates is now putting his sizeable foundation and zest for philanthropy toward a greater, albeit somewhat unpleasant cause: Reinventing the toilet as part of a global push to improve sanitation conditions in underdeveloped countries.
Last June, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation doled out grants of approximately $400,000 to eight universities, giving them a year to put their engineering mettle to the test to create a waterless, hygienic toilet that is safe and affordable for people in the developing world. The foundation later announced a second round of grants, in total, handing out nearly $3.4 million.
Bill Gates with a researcher from California Institute of Technology at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle on Aug. 14, 2012.
(Source: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)
According to the foundation, nearly 2.5 billion people worldwide live without proper sanitation -- a reality culminating in 1.5 million child deaths annually, a result of ingesting food and water with fecal matter. Beyond saving lives, cost-effective, proper sanitation can also bring substantial economic benefits to the tune of $9 in social and economic benefits for every $1 invested, according to the World Health Organization.
When the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge and grants were issued, the mission was to design toilets that can capture and process human waste without the requirement of piped water, sewer, or electrical connections, and with the goal of transforming human waste into some kind of useful entity such as water or energy. And oh yeah, do it all at an affordable price.
The Gates Foundation hosted an event, the "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge," this month to showcase the work of the university teams and announce the winner. First prize in the challenge was awarded to the California Institute of Technology, which received $100,000 for its design of a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity. Second prize (or $60,000) went to Loughborough University in the UK for its toilet design, which produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water. The University of Toronto took the third place prize of $40,000 for a toilet that sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water, and special recognition and $40,000 went to Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) and EOOS for their design of a toilet interface.
In a press release announcing the winners, Bill Gates framed up his position on the challenge: "Innovative solutions change people's lives for the better," Gates said. "If we apply creative thinking to everyday challenges such as dealing with human waste, we can fix some of the world's toughest problems."
The Toilet Challenge was issued as part of the Gates Foundation's Water, Sanitation & Hygiene initiative, which has committed $370 million to helping develop sustainable sanitation services, among other projects.
Besides the state-of-the art sustainable toilets, projects featured at the event included better ways to empty latrines, insect-based latrines for faster feces decomposition, and user-centered designs for public toilets.