The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a team of researchers from University of Colorado at Boulder $780,000 to develop a prototype solar-powered toilet.
The award was one of several similarly generous grants awarded this months to researchers working on sustainable ways to process human waste in developing countries.
The Gates Foundation Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is encouraging research teams to come up with a viable solution to a problem that could easily get out of control and already causes disease and issues in developing countries that don’t have a reasonable way to manage human waste.
“Solar seemed like a good place to work from,” said Karl Linden, an environmental engineering professor at CU Boulder.
His team uses solar energy delivered through fiber-optic cables to heat and decompose a container of fecal matter inside a latrine to more than 200 degrees Celsius and transform it into a charcoal material for reuse in improving agricultural soil.
“It’s a pretty far-out idea,” Linden said.
But he teaches a course called Engineering in Developing Communities and regularly talks with his students about the challenges posed by dealing with human waste in emerging economies with growing populations. The sewage tends to be dumped in rivers and causes disease and unhealthy conditions when it seeps into the drinking water supply.
His students have long been brainstorming systems that could make an impact.
“This is an opportunity to put some of the ideas we’ve had into a real project and really think outside the box,” Linden said.
With a real goal, deadline and project at hand, the team came up with the idea of using concentrated solar energy to sterilize fecal matter and turn it into something useful.
“We wanted to make something marketable and useable, a valuable end product that can be immediately used,” Linden said.
The team will work on the project for the next 15 months and use the Gates Foundation grant funds to build a working prototype for a major “toilet fair” in December 2013.
“The resources we’re getting here,” Linden said, “this is unlike any research award I’ve gotten as a professor.”