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| Last Updated:26/03/2014

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Not just toilet, a tech wonder

The Hindu, 23 March 2014


An exhibitor from Eram Scientific, Kerala, explaning about the e-toilet (Coin system), at Reinvent the Toilet Fair, organised by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in New Delhi on Saturday. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

NEW DELHI: Who would have expected a toilet to one day filter water, charge a cellphone or create charcoal to combat climate change? These are lofty ambitions beyond what most of the world’s 2.5 billion people with no access to modern sanitation would expect. Yet, scientists and toilet innovators around the world say these are exactly the sort of goals needed to improve global public health amid challenges such as poverty, water scarcity and urban growth.


Scientists who accepted the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s challenge to reinvent the toilet showcased their inventions here on Saturday. The primary goal — to sanitise waste, use minimal water or electricity, and produce a usable product at low cost.


To be successful, scientists said, the designs being exhibited at Saturday’s Toilet Fair had to go beyond treating urine and faeces as undesirable waste, and recognise them as profit-generating resources for electricity, fertilizer or fuel.


All the designs are funded by Gates Foundation grants and in various stages of development. Some toilets collapsed neatly for easy portability into music festivals, disaster zones or illegal slums. One emptied into pits populated by waste-munching cockroaches and worms.


One Washington-based company, Janicki Industries, designed a power plant that could feed off the waste from a small city to produce 150 megawatts of electricity, enough to power thousands of homes.


The University of the West of England, Bristol, showcased a urine-powered fuel cell to charge cellphones overnight.


Another team from the University of Colorado, Boulder, brought a system concentrating solar power through fibre optic cables to heat waste to about 300 degrees Celsius. Aside from killing pathogens, the process creates a charcoal-like product called biochar useful as cooking fuel or fertilizer.


One company from Kerala was not as concerned with providing toilets as with cleaning them. Toilets are more common in Kerala than they are in much of the country, but no one wants to clean them, said Bincy Baby of Eram Scientific Solutions.


“There is a stigma. The lowest of the low are the ones who clean the toilets,” Baby said. Eram’s solution is a coin-operated eToilet with an electronic system that triggers an automated, self-cleaning mechanism. With 450 prototypes now looped into sewage systems across India, electrical engineers are lining up for jobs as toilet technicians. “Now, they’re proud of their jobs.”