Media Releases

U of T engineers put their heads together to reinvent the toilet

July 20, 2011

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wants the University to write the traditional latrine a “Dear John” letter

TORONTO, ON – I hope you’re sitting down – here’s a challenge for you.

Design a toilet that’s off-the-grid – no running water, no sewerage system, no electricity. Make sure it’s self-contained: human waste goes in; clean water, carbon dioxide, mineral ash (for fertilizer) and energy comes out, in about 24 hours. Oh yes, and it has to work for only five cents per user, per day.

That’s the problem the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put in front of leading universities worldwide through the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. The Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at the University of Toronto was one of eight schools that was awarded almost $400,000 to think outside the box about water closets.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced this grant at the AfricaSan conference in Rwanda as part of more than $40 million in new investments launching its Water, Sanitation & Hygiene strategy.

Professor Yu-Ling Cheng in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, will be leading an international team who will be coming up with a sustainable sanitation solutions for the developing world.

“This is a vital problem and is just the sort of global issue engineers, especially engineers from U of T, are so well suited to tackle. I am confident that we will contribute to solve this major sanitation challenge and health issue for the developing world. We are deeply grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for selecting us as the sole Canadian recipient of this funding,” said Dean Cristina Amon, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

“It is a fascinating problem,” said Professor Cheng. “Those of us in the West don’t give toilets much thought. But there are 2.6 billion people in the world who don’t have access to safe and affordable sanitation.” The result is the prevalence and spread of water-borne diseases like dysentery and cholera. “Lack of clean drinking water is important,” said Cheng. “But the lack of a way to safely deal with human waste is even more pressing.”

Cheng is also the Director of the Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN) at the University of Toronto. CGEN promotes scholarly, interdivisional research and other educational activities related to Engineering in a global environment. “So, U of T was in the right place at the right time,” said Cheng. “Not only are we a world-leading Engineering school, but we’re focused on just these kinds of global challenges and opportunities.”

Over the next year, in Phase One of the Challenge, Cheng and her team will develop the technical ideas at the centre of their approach, create a prototype and conduct field testing of the concept in Bangladesh to make sure the ideas are culturally appropriate. Then they’ll vie for additional funding for Phase Two.

“It is a developing world problem,” said Cheng, “but, really, if we could make a toilet that didn’t require water, sewerage and power, and we add a splash of First World stylishness, who wouldn’t want to use it in Toronto.”

“To address the needs of the 2.6 billion people who don’t have access to safe sanitation, we not only must reinvent the toilet, we also must find safe, affordable and sustainable ways to capture, treat, and recycle human waste,” said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Most importantly, we must work closely with local communities to develop lasting sanitation solutions that will improve their lives.”


About Engineering at the University of Toronto
The Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at the University of Toronto is the premier engineering institution in Canada and among the very best in the world. With approximately 4,850 undergraduates, 1,600 graduate students and 230 professors, U of T Engineering is at the fore of innovation in engineering education and research.

For more information, please contact:

Takara Small
Communications & Media Relations Coordinator
Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering
(O): 416-946-7257
(C): 416-985-6839