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The Gates Foundation Wants Better Toilets…Any Ideas?

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The old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But as we learned with light bulbs, sometimes it works just fine, but it still needs fixing. That got us off our century-old incandescent design and pushed us toward the compact fluorescent bulb, which is far more efficient.

Now, the Gates Foundation (the organization started by Bill and Melinda Gates) has a new not-broken thing for us to fix: the toilet. The fact is that the flush toilet has been in use since the 18th century and, while it has been updated lately to use less water, is still a pretty basic piece of plumbing technology that can be surprisingly impractical.

For example, in a developing country it can be difficult and expensive to hook up a toilet to a water source and plumbing system, not to mention being able to provide the necessary amount of water for it to function. And on the eco-friendly side, toilets still don’t do anything to treat or recycle waste. 

So the Gates Foundation has given out eight grants to universities, hoping for a game-changing idea. So far, a few very creative ideas have sprung up, including a solar-powered toilet that provides enough power to process waste, a toilet that sanitizes waste to avoid the spread of disease, and even one model that would gasify waste into a plasma that could be used for energy. Sounds smelly, but efficient!

Most of these innovations would be most useful in developing countries, but hopefully with this idea of redesign getting some buzz, we could see some innovations in America and other countries that have safe, working sewage systems. Certainly I can’t be the only one that feels a little guilty at using up all that clean water to flush a toilet when there are people in other countries that don’t even have enough to drink.

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