Gates foundation flushes out new thinking on toilets

Updated: 2012-08-16 03:12

By Chen Jia in Seattle (China Daily)

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A Chinese inventor and his solar toilet attracted the attention of the media and American venture capitals at a toilet fair held by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle this week.

Bill Gates, the world's leading private philanthropist, is focusing his energy on funding and encouraging scientists to develop a new type of toilet as part of his foundation's push to improve health in the developing world.

"China will see more than a hundred billion dollars of solar industrial upgrading in the coming two to three years," Ning Jing, guest professor at Shijiazhuang University of Economics said at the fair on Tuesday.

"That's why I have the ambition and courage to become a start-up at this age," the 49-year-old said. He is also the CEO of Beijing Sunnbyreeze Technologies Inc.

Ning is expected to promote solar power's broader application and its huge market potential following China's solar industrial upgrading.

Ning and his team showcased their prototypes and projects at the two-day event held at the Bill & Melinda Gates' Foundation's headquarters on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The fair brought together participants from 29 countries, including researchers, designers, investors, advocates and representatives of the communities who will ultimately adopt these new inventions.

Open defecation leads to sanitation problems that cause 1.5 million children under 5 to die each year, Gates said, and Western-style toilets are not the answer as they demand a complex sewer infrastructure and use too much water.

The solar toilet designed by Ning's team does not discharge pollutants but generates energy and recovers water and other nutrients.

Last year, Ning received $100,000 from Grand Challenge Explorations, a toilet related program funded by the Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, more than 700 GCE grants have been awarded to innovative early-stage projects in 45 countries. Initial grants of $100,000 are awarded twice a year. Successful projects have the opportunity to receive a further grant of up to $1 million.

"Chinese researchers are very smart and responsible," Carl Henzman, the program officer of water, sanitation and hygiene under the foundation, said in Seattle.

Prior to joining the foundation, Henzman was an energy program manager focusing on resource recovery at the Wastewater Treatment Division in King County, Washington.

Although China is not a focus area like Africa and Southeast Asia for the toilet program, the country is an important "technology partner", Henzman said.

He said the program aims to create toilets that can be easily adopted by local entrepreneurs living in poor urban settings. "The fundamental criteria in the reinvention of the toilet is that it can't cost more than people are willing to pay," he said.

The toilet should be hygienic and sustainable for the world's poorest populations and have an operational cost of $0.05 for every user per day, Henzman said.

The fair aims to inspire collaboration around a shared mission of delivering a sustainable toilet for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who do not have access to safe and affordable sanitation.

However, Ning believes China could be a direct beneficiary rather than technology partner.

"Though people in big cities like Beijing do not lack access to sanitation, they are faced with a serious water resources crisis," he said.

The environmental pollution caused by toilet waste is also a big problem for China, he said. "We are creating toilets that do not rely on water to flush waste or a septic system to process and store waste," he said. "That's how the program benefits the whole world including China."

Ning focused on sensors in his post-doctoral research at Stevens Institute of Technology, New York University and Wayne State University between 2005 and 2010.

Prior to his time in the US, Ning worked as a researcher in China with a focus on radars, mechanical-electrical integration and radioactive waste management.

Improving access to sanitation can also bring substantial economic benefits. According to the World Health Organization, improved sanitation delivers up to $9 in social and economic benefit for every $1 invested because it increases productivity, reduces healthcare costs and prevents illness, disability and early death.

"Innovative solutions change people's lives for the better," Gates said at the fair on Tuesday.

"Many of these innovations will not only revolutionize sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on the traditional flush toilet in wealthy nations," Gates said.

Chris Elias, president of the global development program with the Gates Foundation, said that Ning's team is the only one from China at the fair but he expects more Chinese researchers and scientists to get involved in the program next year.

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