Bill Gates thinks toilets are a serious business, and he’s betting big that a reinvention of this most essential of conveniences can save a half million lives and deliver $200 billion-plus in savings.
The billionaire philanthropist, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent $200 million over seven years funding sanitation research, showcased some 20 novel toilet and sludge-processing designs that eliminate harmful pathogens and convert bodily waste into clean water and fertilizer.
The Microsoft Corp. co-founder explained that new approaches for sterilizing human waste may help end almost 500,000 infant deaths and save $233 billion annually in costs linked to diarrhea, cholera and other diseases caused by poor water, sanitation and hygiene.
One approach from the California Institute of Technology that Gates said he finds “super interesting” integrates an electrochemical reactor to break down water and human waste into fertilizer and hydrogen, which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells as energy.
Without cost-effective alternatives to sewers and waste-treatment facilities, urbanization and population growth will add to the burden. In some cities, more than half the volume of human waste escapes into the environment untreated. Every dollar invested in sanitation yields about $5.50 in global economic returns, according to the World Health Organization.
Gates, who with wife Melinda has given more than $35.8 billion to the foundation since 1994, said he became interested in sanitation about a decade ago.