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A Better Toilet

For A Cleaner World

Duke University Center for WaSH-AID

Integrated Waste Treatment System

The Challenge

Imagine not having a safe, clean place to go to the bathroom. Approximately 1 out of every 3 – or 2.4 billion people on earth, lack access to a toilet on a daily basis, and almost 1 billion people practice open defecation – a practice that poses significant risks for women and children (SDG Report, 2017). The results of poor sanitation are profound. One million children die each year from diarrheal disease, due primarily from untreated waste water (UN Child Mortality Report, 2017). Lack of safe sanitation is one of the primary reasons 130 million school-age girls are not pursuing their education (ONE). Poor sanitation degrades the environment and has a significant impact on economic potential; cities are engines of economic growth and closing the sanitation gap is key to long-term prosperity for emerging economies.

The Approach

With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge,” researchers from Duke University, industry, and the non-profit sector set out to revolutionize the toilet. The team had to meet several technical challenges: the solution would need to treat a variety of waste in resource-limited environments requiring limited or no access to, water, sewer connections, or outside electricity. It would need to transform liquid and solid waste into reusable resources and disinfected, non-potable water. The system had to be affordable – operating on less than $.05 per person per day, and designed so that people would actually want to use it.

After several years of lab-based design and engineering, including valuable feedback from thousands of households to better understand cultural norms and preferences, the first prototype was delivered to Ahmedabad, India, in 2016. Researchers controlled how often the system was used and took it offline for maintenance when necessary, using data to improve performance in future iterations. A year later, the team of researchers launched the Duke University Center for WaSH-AID (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infectious Disease).

In 2018, WaSH-AID installed the next generation system – the Empower Sanitation Platform – in Coimbatore, India, and in Durban, South Africa, for further field testing. The Empower Sanitation Platform is modular, scalable, and adaptable to communities around the world based on their specific needs.

WaSH-AID’s technology approach combines electrochemical disinfection for liquid waste processing and biomass energy conversion to process solid waste. The liquid waste is turned into non-potable water that can be reused to flush the system or for crop irrigation. The solid waste is converted into energy that powers the system. Partners in this effort include researchers from across Duke University, Biomass Controls, RTI International, Colorado State University Engines and Energy Laboratories, Triangle Environmental Health Initiative, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

Next Steps

Potential commercial applications of the Empower Sanitation Platform are immense. From natural disaster recovery and caring for displaced persons to military bases and large-scale civic events, the WaSH-AID system is designed for use in shared public spaces around the world. The technology aims to be gender-transformative, empowering women and girls with choices to enhance their health and quality of life, and to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment.

To learn more about WaSH-AID’s technology and commercialization opportunities, contact WaSH-AID.