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Bill Gates' Next Great Innovation: The Waterless Toilet

Scientists working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are researching the many different ways human waste can be put to good use -- such as powering electrical current with human excrement, or purifying urine into drinking water.

Bill Gates' Next Great Innovation: The Waterless Toilet

Scientists working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are researching the many different ways to better handle human waste: from powering electrical current with human excrement to building toilets without water.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft who has morphed into the world's best-known philanthropist, wants to reinvent the toilet.

This next big idea for the good of mankind will now also be getting help from German taxpayers after Development Minister Dirk Niebel earmarked $10 million for a joint project with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Over the next five years, this project aims to provide 800,000 people in Kenya with access to sanitation facilities, and ensure clean drinking water for 200,000.

The goal is to find "innovative solutions' for sanitation in poor urban areas. Gates says it's time to move on from the era of the classic toilet. He points out that, despite all the recent achievements, 40% of the world's population, or some 2.5 billion people still live without proper means of flushing away excrement. But just giving them western-style toilets isn't possible due to the world's limited water resources.

The matter is urgent: the lack of sanitary installations and hygienic waste removal furthers the spread of disease. UNICEF estimates that 1.1 billion people worldwide don't have access to any kind of toilet or ways of eliminate waste. That in turn fouls drinking water and can causes diarrhea which spreads quickly.

According to UNICEF, at least 1.2 million children under the age of five die of diarrhea every year; the main cause is contact with human feces. At the end of June, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon - together with UNICEF - approved a five-year sustainable sanitation plan under which the number of people who have no access to toilets would be halved by 2015.

Ban emphasized that sanitary installations not only play a decisive role in reducing world poverty, they are crucial for sustainable development and for making it possible to achieve millennium goals.

Dutch engineer Frank Rijsberman agrees. He heads the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene department at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and he's presently working on two projects. With one project, the foundation supports the construction of pit latrines in rural areas and slums without sanitation facilities. With the other, it supports research projects, giving grants to scientists who come up with new ideas for using human excrement. He says there have been experiments to turn excrement into a kind of microwave that can be used as a source of energy.

The yuck factor

He says there are biological bacteria that could turn waste into compost; he talks about the possibility of toilets actually turning urine into drinking water. Human waste could be a real goldmine, Rijsberman jokes. In view of the world's limited water resources, both the Gates Foundation and German development policy also support various projects for dry toilets that do not use a water to flush and separate excrement from urine in order to dry it.

Another method put forward by the Gates Foundation in South Africa is using the urine of 400,000 people to make nitrogenous fertilizer in powder form. A similar albeit high-tech variation of what is currently being tested by the Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) in Eschborn, Germany. Germany's and the Gates Foundation projects are complementary, says the German Ministry for Development. The importance of this research is not always easy to explain, says Rijsberman, because anything having to do with human waste provokes a "yuck factor."

Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of those concerned are far from convinced that it's a good idea to use toilets in the first place. "We have a lot of work ahead us,"" says Rijsberman, who knows he can count on his boss's full support.

And the billionaire himself seizes every opportunity to lobby for the end of the traditional western toilet. In April, Gates met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Christian Wulff in Berlin. In a press conference he told journalists that they didn't talk politics, but discuss the idea of the "ultimate toilet."

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