Bill Gates helped to invent the personal computer and now, through his philanthropic foundation, he plans to help reinvent the toilet. On Tuesday, the billionaire awarded the California Institute of Technology with a $100,000 first-place prize for its work on a solar-powered toilet. The self-contained unit, which recycles water and breaks down waste into useable energy, has become the focus of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to provide sanitation to the developing world.

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Every year, 1.5 million children under the age of five die of diseases caused by a lack of sanitation. Nearly 2.6 billion of the world’s inhabitants do not have access to affordable or adequate sewer systems. A full 60% of the globe’s human waste makes its way into streams and rivers, breeding illness and contaminating the environment. For a majority of the planet, Western-style toilets are not a viable option due to their dependance on a complex sewer infrastructure and amount of water needed to operate.  At a cost of almost $1,000 per person to install a first-world system, most nations simply cannot afford the bathrooms of wealthier nations.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hopes to help develop and distribute the toilet of tomorrow, ideally within the next 2-4 years.  The Foundation has announced $3.4 million for funding projects through the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Through the Challenge, grants were awarded to eight universities to create toilets that use little to no water, and are able to transform waste into energy. Headed by Michael Hoffmann, the team at Caltech received the first place prize. The solar toilet stall uses a large panel to generate power for an electrochemical reactor that breaks down feces and urine into hydrogen gas. The gas can then be stored in fuel cells that provide back-up electricity for low light weather conditions or at night. Recovered water, which become sanitized through operation of the toilet, is used to flush. The entire mechanism is designed to be buried underneath a conventional urinal stall setup.

Other awards were handed to Britain’s Loughborough University and Canada’s University of Toronto for their contributions. Through academic collaboration and competition, the Gates Foundation aims spend some of the organization’s $80 million committed to make a difference in the areas of water, sanitation, and hygiene.

+ California Institute of Technology

Via The Daily Mail

Lead Image ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Michael Hanson via Flickr