Speaking to a crowd in Seattle earlier today, Bill Gates sounded at times like he was talking about a technology product in desperate need of an upgrade.
Actually, he was.
“The toilet that was invented 200 years ago, the flush toilet, really hasn’t had that many milestones. … Maybe a handle, toilet paper rolls, multiple toilet paper roles,” Gates said. “If Crapper was reborn today, he would go into the toilet and find it quite familiar.”
That was a reference to Thomas Crapper, the industrialist credited with popularizing the modern toilet — the Bill Gates of 19th Century plumbing, if you will. And now Gates himself sees in the toilet a set of technologies long overdue for a revolution.
The problems include the massive amounts of water used by toilets, and the complex and expensive disposal systems and wastewater facilities required for proper treatment. There’s a direct impact on health for people without access to sanitation — who number some 2.5 billion, or 40 percent of the world’s population, according to figures cited by Gates.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is putting up millions of dollars to fund a series of projects that aim to “reinvent the toilet.” The event Tuesday at the foundation’s Seattle headquarters, about a year after the grants were made, served as a status update.
University researchers and other scientists showed the work that they have been able to accomplish thus far with their grants, and the foundation encouraged them to look for ways to collaborate.
Gates told the crowd, “A central tenet of my entire career … is that it’s possible to make breakthrough innovations.”
He added, “We don’t just have to accept the way things have been done and try and live within those bounds, but we believe if we bring smart people together, describe the problem, really talk about the requirements of delivering a solution, that big breakthroughs can take place. We saw that in personal computing, in software, and we’re also seeing it in a lot of the critical work that the Foundation does.”
Even though they call it a reinvention of the toilet, it’s really about coming up with an entirely new sanitation system.
For example, a team from Caltech showed a self-contained toilet and wastewater treatment system that uses the sun to power an electrochemical reactor that breaks down water and human waste into hydrogen gas — which can then be used in fuel cells that provide an alternative power source for the system.
That was the winner of the top prize at the event, receiving an additional $100,000 in money from the Gates Foundation.
Some of the parallels to the high-tech industry were tough to miss. For example, if the Caltech project was all about the back-end systems, some of the other projects focused more on the user interface.
Gates told the crowd, “There’s not just science and engineering here, there’s understanding what humans expect, what’s attractive. So we’ve seen also some very good design work that goes into these.”
One project that stood out for its user interface design was a vertical toilet, cleansing and water recycling system that can transform from one use to another by stepping on a big button in the base. The Gates Foundation awarded the project, developed by Swiss researchers and designers, a special $40,000 prize for its user interface.
Here are members of the team showing me the system. (Story continues below.)
There were dozens of projects on display at the event, and Gates said he believes elements of some of the projects could be combined. He said he hopes to see the initiative result in systems being deployed in significant numbers over the next two to four years.
Eventually, he said, these new technologies could also change toilets in the developed world.
“If we do it right, it’s even possible that some of these designs, because of their environmental properties — that is, not requiring as much water, not being nearly as complex — it’s possible that these would be solutions for even rich countries and middle-income countries. The potential for impact is very, very broad.”
A computer on every desk … and a toilet in every home.