Theoretical Toilet Turns Waste to Electricity

No potty humor here – the matter of cleaner, safer methods to deal with sewage in developing countries is serious business, with millions of lives at stake. That’s why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doling out $3 million among eight universities in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America hoping they can “reinvent the toilet,” the Foundation said.

The grants, part of a larger Gates Foundation effort to spur innovations in the capture and storage of waste, was announced at the AfricaSan conference, where experts gather to discuss ways to create and promote sanitation and disease control in Africa. The “reinvent the toilet” challenge requires that a safe, clean toilet be invented as a standalone unit – that is, with no pipeline, sewer or power connection. This complete overall is required, the Gates Foundation said, in order to significantly reduce the number of people – currently around 2.6 billion worldwide – who don’t have access to safe sanitation.

image via Gates Foundation

One of the institutions receiving Gates Foundation funding is Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Researchers there say they’ve come up with an interesting theoretical solution that uses human waste as a source of renewable energy, in addition to disposing of it in a sanitary manner. Really.

It works like this: Human waste is dried and gasified using plasma created in microwaves, yielding a gaseous mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This so-called syngas is then sent into a solid oxide fuel cell stack which generates electricity. Exhaust from the fuel cell will be used in drying the waste, making the process sustainable. “Preliminary calculations show that microwave plasma gasification may be energy self-sufficient, provided that efficient transformation and high throughput of human waste matter can be obtained,” Assistant Professor Georgios Stefanidis of Delft says. “It is also affordable.”

Safe, clean waste and sewage management is a crucial issue in global health. About 1.5 million children a year could be saved from death by simply implementing proper sanitation and hygiene, and access to clean drinking water, the Gates Foundation said. To help remedy the situations faced by billions, the foundation focuses on gathering information on what works in day-to-day life and what people want in a sanitation system, as well as providing education and raising awareness.

Laura Caseley is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and a resident of New York State’s Hudson Valley. She writes for several publications and when she’s not writing, she can usually be found painting in her makeshift studio or enjoying the scenery of her hometown.

1 Comment

  • Reply July 26, 2011

    John Waters

    Why can’t we use this process in the US? u00a0Somehow separate the water from the solid waste, purify the water via filters and reuse it in the toilet as well as for watering plants, etc.

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