Navigant Research Blog

The Facilities of the Future

Lauren Callaway — June 5, 2013

Bill Gates, who is working to promote a carbon-free energy future, also wants to spend the next 20 years of his life eradicating disease in the developing world.  And he wants to do it, in part, by turning poop into profit.  In May, he appeared on 60 Minutes to discuss a variety of initiatives deployed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that promote forward-thinking technologies as logistical solutions for sanitation problems.  One of these, the Reinvent the Toilet initiative, provides funding for engineer teams to develop a solar-powered toilet that can provide a sanitary way to dispose of waste and generate a useful, salable byproduct.

An estimated 2.5 billion people across the globe lack improved sanitation facilities.  Along with increasing disease levels, these unhygienic facilities generate a range of direct and indirect costs, including hospitalization and healthcare costs, loss of productivity, and lack of access to education.  In Nigeria, these costs amount to more than 1% of total GDP.

Despite this hefty price tag, persistent barriers to the development of utilities infrastructure prohibit the types of solutions that the developed world takes for granted.  That brings me back to the toilet – and to Bill Gates.  Reinvent the Toilet (RITT) has committed to provide nearly $40 million dollars for a competition to develop a toilet that meets the requirements to process waste remotely (i.e., without water or outside electricity), produce a profitable byproduct, and cost no more than 5 cents per visitor per day to operate (which includes the upfront cost and any ongoing maintenance).

Possible Privies

That basically sounds impossible.  With teams developing models based upon technologies such as membrane filtration (not cheap), fiber optics (less cheap), and hydrogen-storing fuel cells (WAY less cheap), it remains unclear how the 5-cents-a-day requirement can be achieved without a massive user base … which would then probably raise issues of capacity and maintenance.

I spent part of last year working with the University of Colorado-based team competing in the RITT competition.  With a third round of funding/weeding out of proposals approaching this August, we were pressed to address issues surrounding the cost and feasibility for our model, which utilized fiber optic cables to concentrate solar power.  There are a number of organizations that operate profitable human waste disposal programs, and there’s potential for a sizeable international biochar market.  But these programs face various barriers that range from cultural acceptance to biochar health/safety regulations.

The toilet is a funny thing.  The other technologies Gates supports, such as the portable vaccine refrigerator, don’t seem to trigger as many logistical or cultural issues.  It remains to be seen if RITT teams will be able to successfully devise a business plan that addresses these while leveraging business opportunities that make it affordable.  It’s already very clear that they can make a sexy toilet.

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