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Originally published July 19, 2011 at 5:31 AM | Page modified July 19, 2011 at 6:11 AM

Gates money, best minds put to work 'reinventing' toilet

Bill Gates is turning his penchant for cutting-edge invention on the most unglamorous of devices: the toilet.

Seattle Times business reporter

quotes This seems like a worthy project to me. So much water is "wasted" by flush... Read more
quotes My homemade compost toilet in my cabin (olympic mtns) works very well. A large plastic... Read more
quotes Gates's hope to improve the world with his fortune is commendable. But we seem to be... Read more

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Bill Gates is turning his penchant for cutting-edge invention on the most unglamorous of devices: the toilet.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is launching a program Tuesday aimed at "reinventing the toilet," and providing $42 million in grants to create and test new approaches to improve sanitation in the developing world. The projects were being announced at a conference in Rwanda.

The sanitation revolution, which started in the 18th century with the introduction of the flush toilet and sewers, "has saved more lives than any innovation in the history of public health or medical science," said Frank Rijsberman, director of the foundation's Water, Sanitation and Hygiene initiative.

It also boosted economic growth by reducing waterborne diseases such as cholera and severe diarrhea.

But that transformation reached only one-third of the world, and the problem has only grown worse.

About 40 percent of people still have no access to safe, sanitary toilets, and 1 billion practice open defecation, according to the World Health Organization. Food and water tainted with human waste cause diseases that lead to about 1.5 million deaths of children a year.

The new grants aim to develop affordable latrines, promote sanitation in communities and find new ways to capture and store waste, processing it into energy, fertilizer and even fresh water.

For an organization that often looks to vaccines to solve health problems, the focus on sanitation moves closer to the root of the problem.

"It's not a very popular topic," foundation co-chairwoman Melinda Gates said in a recent interview, "but in terms of really changing people's lives," sanitation is fundamental. "You're not going to build sewers all over the world," she said. For townships and slums, "it's too expensive."

The Gates Foundation is working closely with scientists from Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue-based private company, to explore potential solutions. Those could include new designs for toilets, new uses for human waste as fuel and related projects.

In one project that received funding, a team from Stanford University proposed building a system in Nairobi that would turn human waste into a charcoal used for carbon capture and storage and would process 2 tons of waste daily.

A team from Switzerland aims to construct a functioning model of a toilet that turns urine into water for cleansing.

Some efforts to redesign the toilet in the past have gone nowhere.

"There have been a lot of toilet projects out there and a lot of failures," said Marla Smith-Nilson, executive director of Water 1st International, a Seattle-based nonprofit that supports community-run projects integrating water, toilets and hygiene education. She's seen some of the empty vessels end up being used to store corn.

The challenge is to convince people that toilets and hand-washing are essential, she said. "People say we've been living this way for thousands of years and we're fine."

The Gates Foundation acknowledged there are no silver bullets and progress will require long-term collaboration with local communities to meet their needs.

The grants announced Tuesday include $3 million toward a university challenge to develop a toilet that costs less than 5 cents a day without piped-in water, sewer connection or outside electricity; $8.5 million for a project with the U.S. Agency for International Development; $12 million to the African Development Bank for sanitation-management services; $10 million for a project co-funded by the German and Kenyan governments; and $8 million to UNESCO for education programs.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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