The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is branching out from the world of microfinancing and polio aid to something we all use every day: the toilet. Their Reinvent the Toilet Challenge invited entrepreneurs and researchers to try their hand at creating novel ways of disposing of – or even better, making use of – human waste.
Last week, according to the Foundation, around 200 attendees who are “passionate about creating safe, effective, and inexpensive sanitation services for people without access to flush toilets” gathered together to see which inventor’s porcelain throne could rule them all. (Synthetic feces made of soybeans, not actual human waste, were used to demonstrate the toilets’ impressive abilities to Challenge attendees, in case you were wondering.)
The winning toilet, created by Michael Hoffman and colleagues from the California Institute of Technology, is a green citizen’s dream. It uses solar-power to generate an electrochemical reactor that converts urine and feces into hydrogen gas that can then be stored to power electric reactors. This niftily avoids the traditional drawbacks of normal toilets such as wasting water and missing out on the potential nutrients and energy found in both solid and liquid waste. As an additional bonus, the toilet’s cost of operation hovers at less than 5 cents per day. For their efforts, the researchers took home $100,000.
The Scientist describes some of the winner’s close contenders:
M. Sohail Khan of Loughborough University in the United Kingdom and his colleagues snagged second place, worth $60,000, for their toilet, which converts urine and feces into biological charcoal.
Third place, and $40,000, went to Yu-Ling Cheng of the University of Toronto in Canada and her colleagues for a dehydrating toilet that burns and sanitizes solid waste.
The Foundation aims to send a polished prototype out into the field by 2015.
More from Smithsonian.com: