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Are solar powered toilets the future? Well Bill Gates is betting it is and putting his money behind its development. The “Reinvent the Toilet Fair” held in Seattle this week at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s campus gave first price to Professor Michael Hoffman of the California Institute of Technology for their work on a self-contained, sun-powered toilet system that recycles water and breaks down human waste into storable energy.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has focused on developing a new type of toilet since last year as part of the push to improve health in the developing world. This is due to Bill Gates recognising that despite all the staggering medical breakthroughs and scientific advances the seemingly mundane advance of reliable sewage and reliably clean water supply was judged the greatest medical advance.

Bill Gates has constantly focused on the need for a new type of toilet as an important part of his foundation’s push to improve health in the developing world. About 2.6 billion people, or 40 percent of world’s population mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia lack access to safe sanitation and are forced to defecate in the open. Open defecation leads to sanitation problems that cause 1.5 million children under 5 to die each year, Gates said, “western style toilets are not the answer as they demand a complex sewer infrastructure and use too much water.”

As Bill Gates has realised what plumbers have always known is that fundamentally toilets have not changed since the invention of the flush toilet in 1775. For this reason Bill Gates has launched the reinvent the toilet program to inspire research into new inventions in toilet technology. “Imagine what’s possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead,” Bill Gates said at his foundation’s Seattle headquarters on Tuesday. “Many of these innovations will not only revolutionise sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on traditional flush toilets in wealthy nations.”

Bill Gates presented prizes on Tuesday to the teams that showed the most progress on research new toilet technology. Caltech won the first prize of $100,000 for its working model of a solar powered bathroom. The Caltech model uses a solar panel to produce power for an electrochemical reactor that breaks down faecal matter and urine into hydrogen gas which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells to provide a backup energy source for night operation or use in low sunlight conditions. The workings of the toilet are designed to be installed underground beneath a conventional looking toilet stall and urinal setup. Water recovered from the continuous process is pumped up again to provide water to flush the toilet.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is hoping many of the leading universities will work together to develop the best technologies and is aiming to get new style toilets into use in the next two to four years  as they are already spending about $80 million a year on water, sanitation and hygiene issues. These are areas where it thinks it can make a marked difference in people’s lives by doing what plumbers have always provided, a hygienic toilet facility.

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