Limited access to clean water and sanitation lies at the center of a litany of poverty-related issues. Without adequate access to clean water and sanitation, low-income communities are at a severe disadvantage in the fight against poverty. Everyone, but especially their young and elderly fall prey to waterborne diseases, and countless school days are lost due to children being sick or having to fetch water.

In many low-income communities, this issue is only compounded by aging or inadequate water and sanitation infrastructure. Replacing or updating these intricate water systems requires both government initiative and an enormous amount of funding, which creates a difficult hurdle to overcome in the fight for adequate global access to clean water and sanitation.

The Gates Foundation Challenge

In response to this crisis, in 2011, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued the “reinvent the toilet challenge”, a competition where a variety of research groups vied to propose a new, self-contained wastewater treatment system design. A small team of chemists from Caltech was awarded first place, and, like the rest of the finalists, was awarded a $400,000 grant to continue their work in solar-powered sanitation solutions. 

This new toilet design relies on a series of electrochemical reactions to both sterilize and break down the waste, and in turn, produce hydrogen, which is released into the air. The entire system can effectively sterilize and recycle water so that it can be re-used for toilet flushing or hand washing while being powered only by solar energy. Overall, the solution combines both sustainability and reliability in one compact package.

“So it’s a closed loop system, and it can be powered by solar panel, so the whole thing can be off the grid. (…) because it can be off the grid, it’s really well suited for the developing world”, said Cody Finke, a Ph.D. candidate in electrochemistry working with the team.

The Future of Sanitation

This emphasis on independence bypasses the necessity of infrastructural support, meaning with the use of the technologies present in these futuristic toilets, the government of low-income nations could potentially provide sanitary bathrooms to its citizens without investing billions of dollars in a clean water infrastructure updates.

Although side-stepping billion dollar infrastructure investments is important, it’s not the only challenge at play when it comes to solar powered sanitation solutions. “One of the other things that’s a challenge is if you put a complex technology in the field, often the infrastructure and access to education and to skilled labor isn’t there to repair it when it breaks”, Finke said, in discussing the challenges that complex water treatment technologies face.

So, alongside the toilet’s self-sustaining construction, Finke and the rest of the team are committed to making the toilet modular easy to repair. In conjunction with developing improved electrochemical catalysts that aid in low-impact water sanitation, the team has been building an app “Seva” that works alongside the toilet systems. The app, which can be installed on low-cost smartphones, provides its users with easy-to-understand updates on the inner workings of the system, and step-by-step, pictorial repair instructions should the system malfunction.

Cost Concerns Are Causing Minor Setbacks

Today, somewhere between 30 and 40 prototypes are operational or being installed in low-income countries, which will have an impact on the lives of about 1,000 people, give or take. Despite growing interest in solar-powered sanitation solutions, the market is still small; therefore, production costs remain high. 

Regardless of some of the setbacks, this technology is a valuable contribution to the world of clean water technologies. “You can make the argument that there are different wastewater treatment technologies for different purposes, so I imagine that there’s definitely going to be a blend between our technology and other technologies [in the future]”, said Finke, in consideration of the future of his team’s technology.   

With the support of a growing number of business partners and The Gates Foundation, this treatment could still be the next big thing in renewable toilet technologies. With innovative people working together, we are coming up with ways to alleviate poverty by providing clean water and sanitation to developing countries. Hopefully, financial solutions will be made available to start implementing some of these projects on a larger scale.

– Ian Lloyd Greenwood

Photo: Flickr