Sustainable toilet research fueled by $2.2 million grant

An international team of researchers, which includes Western Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Jason Gerhard, has received a major grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to continue work on designing for a waterless, hygienic toilet that is safe and affordable for people in the developing world.

The Gates Foundation awarded the grant, worth $2.2 million for 15 months, to University of Toronto Engineering professor Yu-Ling Cheng, Centre for Global Engineering director in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, who leads the team. From that grant, $418,000 is earmarked for Western’s portion of the project. Some prototype testing will be conducted at Western’s Institute for Chemicals and Fuels from Alternative Resources (ICFAR) facility.

Earlier this year, the team, which also includes researchers from the University of Queensland, placed third in the Foundation’s Reinventing the Toilet Challenge.

The team’s solution uses a sand filter and UV disinfection to process liquid waste and a smolder chamber, similar to a charcoal barbeque, to incinerate solid waste that has been flattened and dried in a roller/belt assembly. Going forward, the team will work to further simplify the process, reduce mechanical complexity and minimize odor.

“I am very proud of our entire team and the work we have done up to now,” Cheng said. “We have proven that our concept works technically, now we are going to get busy to make sure it will work for the users – some of the 2.6 billion people in the world who do not have access to basic sanitation.”

Developed world toilets, which rely on running water, an extensive sewer network and an expensive processing system, are not suitable for the needs of people in the developing world – many of whom live in places without the infrastructure we take for granted, she said.

Working with local partners in Bangladesh, the team hope to have an operational prototype by December of 2013, one that uses readily available materials and equipment that can be maintained locally, she said.

Besides Cheng and Gerhard, the team includes engineering professors Mark Kortschot, Elizabeth Edwards, Yuri Lawryshyn and Levente Diosady, as well as PhD candidate Tiffany Jung and research associate Zachary Fishman, all of the University of Toronto; and professor José Torero, University of Queensland.