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Triangle Researchers are Building a Better Toilet

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Everyone poops, but few people like to think about where it all goes – except some researches from RTI International.

By Stephanie Soucheray

A million and a half children around the world die from diarrhea each year. That’s more kids dying from diarrhea than HIV infection and malaria combined.

It’s a stark statistic to reckon with, yet diarrhea and fecal-borne illnesses remain one of the largest public health problems in developing nations. For decades, scientists have focused on water – access, quality, cleanliness – as the way to prevent diarrhea illnesses, but scientists in the Research Triangle say that way of thinking looks at the problem all wrong.

“You’ve got to build a better toilet,” said Brian Stoner, an investigator at RTI. “You can have perfectly clean water, but without sanitation, sludge and waste ends up near kids.”

Stoner, along with team members from RTI, North Carolina State University and Duke, have spent the last 18 months designing that toilet. As the recipient of a Gates Foundation challenge, Stoner and his colleagues have rethought toilet sanitation, making a prototype that is suitable for use in places with no municipal waste stream, electricity or access to water.

“There’s 2.5 billion people in the world without access to effective sanitation,” said Stoner. “I’m optimistic about this work.”

In March, they’ll take their prototype to Delhi, India, where their lab model will be part of a toilet fair attended by local politicians and investors. For Stoner, a material scientist who’s worked in water sanitation, the trip will be a jumping off point to test his toilet in the field.

Father and local toilet salesman, Antonia dos Santos in his home village of Lisadila. Antonia creates concrete toilets with the use of a mould and sells them at the market place in Maubara and to neighbouring villages.

Father and local toilet salesman, Antonia dos Santos in his home village of Lisadila, Timor Leste. Antonia creates concrete toilets with the use of a mold and sells them at the market. Photo courtesy Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“I’m very excited because [the toilet project] includes multiple technical disciplines and a social aspect,” he said. “Most new technology fails because people don’t understand the social and economic needs of an area. We’ve taken that information into consideration.”

Stoner’s design is based on simple facts about human waste: The dirty things that come out of us can also be cleaning resources. Urine contains salts that can purify and sanitize like chlorine – while excrement, or solid waste, can dry and be burned as fuel.

“In many parts of the world, dung is used as a fuel source. We put those two pieces together,” he said, referring to urine and feces, “and it’s the basis for our design.”

Self-contained

This new toilet is different from the one you have in your bathroom. Stoner said the technology behind the toilets we use is 200 years old and based on the same designs put forth by Thomas Crapper, the British plumber associated with our flush system. Our toilets depend on a sideways “s” tube that pushes water up, down and back up the toilets to flush out sewer gases and move waste into municipal sewer systems.

Stoner said the new toilet uses an open-screw mechanism to push dried excrement up and into something that resembles a large camp stove, where it’s burned for fuel, converted to electricity and powers the toilet. Liquid waste is converted to salts and chlorine, which disinfects the liquid waste and converts it to non-potable water.

In other words, the toilet is a self-cleaning, self-contained sanitation machine.

The design is meant for large urban areas in which most family dwellings do not have a toilet. Instead, these areas have communal toilets or shared bathroom facilities that dot the landscape of urban slums.

And it’s such a novel approach that the new toilet is even getting some attention from the art world. Stoner’s design caught the eye of Steve Gottlieb, a photographer who wrote a coffee table book on toilets called Flush. Gottlieb photographed RTI’s toilet team for his book, an event Stoner said was a lot of fun.

Number of toilets needed to meet the sanitation target by 2015: To halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to sanitation.

Number of toilets needed to meet the sanitation target by 2015: To halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to sanitation. Map courtesy Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Cover image courtesy Sustainable Sanitation, flickr creative commons

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