Researcher Karl Linden shows off the Biochar created using the solar-powered toilet.

(Photo: Courtesy of University of Colorado Boulder)
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have just returned from New Dehli, India, where they unveiled a new solar-powered toilet at the “Reinvent the Toilet Fair,” an event held last week at the Taj Palace Hotel and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

 The idea: find a cheap, eco-friendly toilet to use in developing countries. CU was among 16 teams that received grants to develop a toilet that is waterless, uses no electricity and treats waste within 24 hours.

According to the Gates Foundation, food and water -- contaminated by fecal matter -- kills about 700,000 children a year.

“The problem of sanitation worldwide is huge,” Karl Linden, a professor of environmental engineering who led CU’s team, says. “There are over 2.5 billion people that actually don’t have a place to use the bathroom and that results in a lot of environmental hazards and potential pathogens getting out and people getting sick.” 

The toilet developed by the CU team uses solar energy to sterilize human waste; the process turns feces into a substance called biochar. Biochar can be used in agriculture and as fuel. The toilet also treats urine so that it can be used in agriculture.

“There’s a lot of value in wastewater and fecal material, such as nutrients, carbon, energy,” Linden says.

The Gates Foundation hopes to have a product in the field by 2015.  Linden says it’s a lofty goal because there are so many requirements for the product and the end result may be a hybrid of sorts. 

“It’s possible many of the technologies that have been developed will be consolidated into a toilet that’s a combination of different things,” Linden says.