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.

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