Friday, August 17, 2012

Reinventing the Loo

A subject, all of us dislike and hate to discuss, except perhaps many small kids who seem to enjoy themselves with toilet humour, is a vital body function. Any talk about Pooing and Loo is strictly a taboo in all sophisticated societies all over the world. Yet the fact remains that roughly 2.6 billion people in the world, mostly in poor countries, lack access to toilets, and 1.5 million children die annually from diarrheal diseases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef have presented to the world, what they call as the millennium development goals (MDGs) for areas like reduction in extreme poverty and ensuring environmental sustainability. Under this area of ensuring environmental sustainability, factors like basic sanitation, covering toilets, latrines, hand washing and waste are covered. The UN has declared in 2010, access to water and sanitation as a fundamental right and there is a U.N. appointed person to investigate all matters regarding the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

In March 2012, the U.N. announced that the goal of doubling the number of people, who have access to safe drinking water, was achieved. Unfortunately, regarding sanitation, the world is still far from meeting the target of 75% of world population to have access to improved sanitation. Today, only 63 per cent of the world population has access to improved sanitation and this may go up to 67 % at the most by 2015. At present, as many as 2.5 billion people lack access to an improved sanitation facility, which hygienically separates human waste from human contact. According to a UN report published in 2010, we might have to wait up to 2049 to meet the targets set up by UN, regarding access to improved sanitation. This UN report also says that as many as 1.2 billion people practice, what the U.N. describes as “open defecation.” They go to the toilet behind bushes, in fields, in plastic bags or along railway tracks. The practice poses particular problems for women and girls, who can be subject to physical and verbal abuse or humiliation.

In India, out of the total population of 1.2 Billions, almost half live in rural areas. In spite of all the show casing of progress in the cities, fact remains that many rural areas still lack even the basic amenities like latrines and toilets. To have a toilette in or adjoining the house, is one of the basic necessities of modern times. Unfortunately, not many rural folk seem to have understood the importance of even this basic facility. Effectively, rural womenfolk suffer the most. To avoid prying eyes, they are forced to visit the open-air toilets under cover of darkness, which can be very inconvenient at times. It is humiliating, harrowing and extremely unhealthy. Further, it leads to spread of diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid and malaria. Many rural womenfolk suffer from urinary tract infections, kidney and liver problems, because they don’t have a safe place to go. Efforts to improve upon the situation of the lack of sanitation, in rural areas, have not met with much success so far. In the year 2001, a project to build latrines in rural areas was taken up with the help of World Bank. The latrines built under this scheme were used by rural folks for storage of grains or as verandahs for their houses.

Government has been promoting cause of building more and more toilets in India. There have been some NGOs' in India like 'Sulabh International', who are devoted to this cause. In many cases, particularly in villages, it is seen that the toilets are built because of Government grants, but never used. The reason for this is the paucity of water in the villages. In many villages, no water is available on tap, and needs to be fetched from a distance. The Current sanitation model was developed by Alexander Cummings more than 200 years ago. This model depends on piped water, sewer or electrical connections that poor countries can not afford. It would be quite obvious from above discussion that with present technology and design of latrines, not much improvement is possible in number of people, who do not have to suffer the agony of open defecation.

About an year ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of USA, issued a challenge to universities to break with a sanitation model that has changed little since 200 years ago and design toilets that can capture and process waste without piped water and transform human waste into useful resources such as energy and water. The challenge was a part of a $40 million program initiated by the Gates Foundation to tackle the problems of water, sanitation, and hygiene throughout the developing world. The foundation received number of proposals from all over the world and selected eight entries for a grant to be given, for building this modern toilet.

The Foundation chairman Bill Gates, announced the winners on 14th August 2012, in Seattle, Washington state USA. While announcing the results, Bill gates mentioned that “Imagine what’s possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead. ” “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.”

The winning loo, a solar-powered model designed by researchers from the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, USA, generates hydrogen and electricity to boot: won a cash award $ 100,000. Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, won the $60,000 second-place prize for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water. The $40,000 third-place award went to the University of Toronto's design, which sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water. Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology and EOOS won $40,000 as a special recognition for their toilet interface design.

Caltech engineer Michael Hoffmann and his colleagues, who were given a grant of $400,000 last year to create a toilet that can safely dispose of human waste without producing pollutants, for just five cents per user per day without using a septic system or an outside water source, have produced the winning design. Hoffmann, who is the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science at Caltech, had given a proposal to build a toilet that uses the sun to power an electrochemical reactor. The reactor breaks down water and human waste into fertilizer and hydrogen, which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells as energy. The treated water can then be reused to flush the toilet or for irrigation.

Hoffman's team built a prototype inside the solar dome on the roof of Caltech's Linde + Robinson Laboratory, and after a year of designing and testing, they showed off their creation. One of the problems at this demonstration was to create fake feces which would have all the properties of human feces, yet could be used in demonstration without causing any nausea, disgust or loathing to the people. The Gates Foundation had brought in for the demonstrations, 50 gallons of fake feces made from soybeans and rice, specially made for the occasion.

Hoffman's winning design looks like a regular toilet above the ground. After use, the waste is flushed down to a holding tank under the floor, where the solid material sinks to the bottom. When the liquid in the tank reaches a certain level, it is siphoned through a tube into a "sun-powered electrochemical reactor." The reaction oxidizes the chloride in the urine, killing microorganisms in it. The treated water is filtered and reused the next time someone sits on the toilet. The residual chlorine in the water means that the next flush would already have disinfectant in it. The hydrogen, could be siphoned off, and the toilet's owners could use it as a fuel. The whole thing is powered with solar energy.

Hoffman's design uses a photovoltaic panel to generate energy, which is stored in batteries, to power the electrochemical reactor that purifies liquids drawn from the small septic tank and also purifies the solid waste which can then be used as biofuel or fertilizer.

Bill Gates says that once a next-generation toilet is fully designed, it will incorporate ideas from a variety of toilet designs submitted in the contest: "We think the combination of a lot of this work is what will get us to the eventual solution."

This kind of toilet which does not require running water or electricity should be real boon for India's villages, though use of batteries appears to be a sour point. It is a common experience in India, that batteries require costly replacements. Therefore they are never replaced. The design for the future toilet therefore must eliminate use of any kind of batteries. Then only, there would be a real chance that in future at least, most of the people of the world would have access to clean sanitation.

17 August 2012


  1. Hoffman is a real genius. I hope that in spite of the cost of the batteries this design if brought to India will revolutionize life in India.