Floating ideas for building a better toilet.
Harder than you think; most ideas end up in the crapper.
The modern loo has worked on the same principal since its 1775 patent in England by the much beloved Thomas Crapper, which required using water to flush waste through pipes into a nearby stream or cesspool. It used an S-shaped water trap to seal the pipe so noxious sewer gases wouldn’t rise into the home.
When people ask Georgia Tech engineering professor Ilan Stern about his latest high-tech project, he talks about developing systems for combustion engines, viscous heaters and automatic high-pressure steam valve systems. “They say, `what are you building, a rocket?’” Stern said. He’s actually part of a world-wide team of Georgia Tech-led engineers, chemists and biologists trying to design a cheap, self-contained toilet not dependent on a sewer connection.
Billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates challenged top universities and businesses in 2011 to solve the problem – and offered $200 million in funding. Since then engineers from Caltech to the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, along with appliance makers such as Kohler, have developed dozens of prototypes. They include sewage treatment stations on trucks to stand-alone toilets that pack a treatment system in the tank, turning human waste into sanitary material that can be burned, thrown away or used for fertilizer.
In May, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation selected Shannon Yee, an associate professor at Georgia Tech, to lead the final push. Yee and his globe-trotting team have been given a $13.5 million budget and 39 months to sort through the prototypes and remaining challenges.
Yee is confident that his “final push” will do it. “When people started working on this, there was a realization that wow, this is a lot harder than we thought,” said the 34-year-old Yee, who has graduate degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave Georgia Tech a $13.5 million grant to lead a world-wide team’s effort to create a toilet that can function wtihout a connection to a sewer line. Gates is proud of what his money has produced so far.
“I even drank water made from human feces a couple years ago. Melinda won’t kiss me any more because she says my breath smells like crap. But I’m taking one for the team.” he chirped in his blog last November.
Meanwhile, Yee and his team think that they are close to a working solution, but according to Yee, “Right now we have nothing to go on.”