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Caltech’s solar powered sanitation solution inches closer to reality

28 March 2014

As we mentioned in 2012, the Gates Foundation, headed by Bill and Melinda Gates, has set out to reinvent the toilet and bring sanitation to the 2.6 billion people in the world that don’t have access to it. Since its inception the foundation has awarded multiple grants to researchers around the world to develop a toilet that provides for safe and sustainable management of human waste.

Since winning their grant three years ago the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has been working on a self-contained, solar-powered system that recycles water, breaks down human waste, disinfects all by-products and converts it all into storable energy. This revolutionary toilet uses a solar panel to power an electrochemical reactor, which breaks down waste into solids that can be used as fertiliser and hydrogen that can be stored in fuel cells to power the reactor when it’s cloudy outside. A pump sends treated, recycled water back to a reservoir on the top of the toilet.

The toilet is completely self-contained – no sewer connection required. It can run off the grid, and it can treat wastewater in just three to four hours. Caltech’s prototype has so far received over $500,000 in grants from organisations like the Gates Foundation for its work on what is widely recognised as a possible solution to the third world’s open defecation issues.

In January, two of the Caltech solar powered toilet units were shipped off to India for trial in remote communities. Using the solar toilet system will provide underdeveloped or impoverished areas a cleaner and healthier way to dispose of human waste without the risk of mixing it with drinking and bathing waters. A 20-foot lavatory and treatment system housed in a shipping container was also sent to Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala. The students at Mahatama Gandhi University are collaborating with Caltech on the solar-powered septic system.

We’re excited to see whether the Caltech team can achieve their goal of an entirely self-sufficient toilet that can be run for under five cents per day. We’ll keep you in the LOOp with any further developments.

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