CSU research project aims to construct waterless toilets for developing countries

MGabriel Matt

For billions of people across the globe, sanitation systems haven’t been updated in hundreds of years.

That’s why the Research Triangle Institute approached CSU’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, or EECL, to become one of the teams involved in the challenge to build a waterless toilet for regions lacking sanitation. This research is sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In theory the final product would burn solid and liquid waste, and then convert the remaining product into energy.

“From a design standpoint it’s a really unique design challenge,” Morgan DeFoort Co-Director of the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab said.

The research is set to last 15 months. If progress goes well there is a good chance another 15 months of research will be commissioned to finish the model.

“If the technology works it’ll go all the way to commercialization,” DeFoort said.

Creating a cost effective and clean way to get rid of human waste in developing countries that don’t possess sewers or water treatment plants could improve the lives of billions of people in these areas.

In some places, sanitation hasn’t evolved since the middle ages.

“Sanitation systems were non-existent; you threw it in the street,” CSU History Professor Barbara Smith said about sanitation in the middle ages.

Of course more improvements than fancy new toilets will be needed to help improve these regions of the world. Even if this research turns out to be feasible, the toilets have to be deployed, the already damaged ecosystems will need repair and there will still be serious problems outside of sanitation.

“You could see a product ultimately coming out that would have a big impact on human health throughout the world,” DeFoort said.

The EECL continues its humanitarian research into improving these poverty stricken countries with this project. RTI International approached CSU’s EECL for their experience in improving biomass cook stoves, which are antiquated stoves powered by wood or other organic material that are used in developing areas.

“RTI asked us to be on the team,” DeFoort said.

The Gates Foundation’s website doesn’t show any money given to CSU in grants for the project yet. There was however a grant given to RTI for $250,062 in August of this year for an unspecified project in the same genre as the waterless toilet. It is unclear if this award was shared or just for RTI but CSU is about one-third of the team.

DeFoort and five researchers, both faculty and students, will use any funding that does come into the university. Those who do take part in the project will learn about realistic engineering issues teams face in development.

“(It’s) very cost constrained, very consumer oriented, and so understanding the customer needs and designing for solutions that are low cost and scalable is a great benefit to the students,” DeFoort said.

Collegian Writer Matt Gabriel can be reached at news@collegian.com.