This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
We are living in the future my friends. Twenty years ago, one could only have dreamed that some day they’d be getting chauffeured around in a driverless car, watching a live-streamed Mars landing, or taking a shit in a microwave-powered toilet that completely vaporises excrement. And yet here we are. The achievements of science are, as always, truly awe-inspiring.
This latest invention is coming to you courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who are looking for innovative technologies to “reinvent the toilet” and completely revolutionise the way we deal with human waste. There are 2.5 billion people in the world who don’t have access to safe, affordable sanitation systems, The Daily Beast reports—and every time they go to the toilet they’re exposing themselves to unhealthy and potentially dangerous situations.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent The Toilet Challenge” hopes to fix that, and the government-owned, New Zealand-based company Scion Research may have come up with a solution that one would only expect to see in the pages of science fiction. Essentially: what if we just zapped poo on high heat until it dissolves?
Scion, which is being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is developing a new type of toilet that uses pressure and microwave technology to treat sewage in the convenience of a person’s home. For people in developing world who haven’t been afforded modern upgrades to sewerage or plumbing, that could be a game-changer.
“We get to flush here and it gets out of our household and treated and discharged into the environment and we’re removed from the issue so we don’t have to handle it personally or live amongst it. In a large part of the developing world that’s not the case,” says Daniel Gapes, an environmental engineer working on the project. “Their proximity to their waste is constant and the risk of disease is high.”
Scion’s poo vaporising method is known as wet oxidation, and essentially works by taking shit, adding oxygen, placing it all under pressure, and gently heating it to about 200 degrees celsius.
“What would happen in that environment over a period of an hour is that organic material will oxidize,” says Daniel. “It gets converted to carbon dioxide and water. Just heating under oxygen pressure. It’s quite amazing.” No shit.
This kind of technology is already used in large-scale applications like mining and sewage treatment—but Scion Research is hoping they can downsize it to a household system. The team is currently working on developing a microwave reactor that can quickly heat the unit. Eventually they hope to deliver a product that looks just like an ordinary toilet, but is far cheaper and more efficient than the porcelain thrones of today.
“It needs to feel like a regular toilet,” Daniel stressed. “The challenge is really high.”
But even if the household version of the poo vaporiser never comes to fruition, Daniel believes the proposed product could still be useful on a slightly larger scale.
“If working at the toilet scale is very, very hard there are other scales,” he said. “If you move to a bigger scale the cost might work and it’s still useful. It’s immediate, and remains exciting even if you didn’t quite crack the single toilet result.”
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