The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic enterprise created by Microsoft guru Bill Gates, issued a challenge last summer that called for engineers to, in Gates' words, "reinvent the toilet." One year later, a team of designers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has received the $100,000 prize for creating a solar-powered toilet.
The major stipulation of the contest, according to various news sources, was that the winning device be able to create energy as opposed to wasting it. To this end, the Caltech toilet is part of a larger machine that takes fecal matter, breaks it down into hydrogen using an electrochemical reactor and stores the latent energy in fuel cells for later use.
The process also cleans the material of any disease-causing bacteria, which contributes to the Gates Foundation's goal of providing clean, low-impact toileting to impoverished countries with high levels of illness caused by unclean water.
"Imagine what's possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead," Gates said on August 14, speaking from the foundation's headquarters in Seattle. "Many of these innovations will not only revolutionize sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on traditional flush toilets in wealthy nations."
Other teams from around the world sought the top prize, including one from the United Kingdom's Loughborough University, which designed a toilet that creates biological charcoal and water clean enough to drink. A University of Toronto design group invented a system that processes fecal matter to isolate useful minerals as well as purified water.
During the press conference, Gates also announced a $3.4 million grant for more toilet development to be awarded to universities and research organizations around the world. These philanthropic efforts, if fully realized, may one day bring renewable resources to the areas that need it the most.