According to reports, even though he was in the middle of a hearty meal at the Chandler Cafe at Caltech, Clement Cid was enthused to talk about toilets, human waste and septic systems.
The graduate student together with a team of Caltech researchers and private contractors were taking a lunch break before putting final touches on their award-winning toilet design one early December afternoon. The front of the toilet looked like any lavatory, complete with a toilet, wash basin, and tiling that crews were still plastering on the walls and floors.
But it’s the room behind the toilet, a self-contained solar-powered waste management system, that is of interest to places like India.
“In India, half of the population does open defecation, so it’s a big issue,” Cid said. “Six hundred million people don’t have a safe place to go. It’s a country with a lot of opportunities but also has that lack of sanitation.”
To help remedy India’s situation, two solar septic systems and a lavatory are being shipped from the Caltech campus to India on Tuesday. Using the solar toilet system will provide underdeveloped or impoverished areas a cleaner and healthier way to dispose of human waste without the risk of mixing it with drinking and bathing waters.
“This would give you an opportunity to use a restroom that didn’t have any connection to sewage and where water is rare,” said Cid, who has led the project. “The main goal of this system is, you have it out of any grid. So it doesn’t need to be connected to the water.”
According to the World Wide Water Report, 2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation like flushing toilets and latrines, almost one billion of them children. Every 20 seconds, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation.
A 20-foot lavatory and treatment system will be sent to Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, which will collaborate with Caltech on the solar-powered septic system. A treatment system will be shipped to either Ahmedabad or Trivandrum to be connected to an Eram Scientific “eToilet,” an energy-saving approach to the toilet.
The systems were built three months ago. A third solar toilet will stay at Caltech for further studies, and can be used by anyone on campus.
Kohler, a kitchen and bathroom design and technology company, is supporting the efforts by donating plumbing products and design advice.
“It is exciting and certainly an honor for us to work with the Caltech team, who are true pioneers of their time,” Kohler Co. sustainability marketing manager Rob Zimmerman said in a news release. “Kohler is known for pioneering innovative products and helping to advance technology, and through the Gates Foundation challenge, we get the opportunity to support others in their efforts to push traditional system to a new level.”
In 2011, a team of Caltech researchers was awarded a $400,000 grant to create a toilet that would safely dispose of human waste for just five cents per use per day. In 2012, their solar system won first place in the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Using solar power, which can be operated remotely, the solar toilet converts sunlight to electricity that powers an electrochemical reactor, which breaks down water and human waste into fertilizer and hydrogen, which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells. In addition, the waste water can be recycled through the septic system to keep the toilet from contaminating drinking water.
“We’re oxidizing the waste, and we’re also disinfecting it, so we’re killing bacteria,” Cid said.
Dick Suchter, president of Programmed Scientific Instruments in Arcadia and a Caltech alumna, was contracted to help install the solar-powered portion of the toilet
“I’ve worked with a lot of instrumentation where you have a microcomputer that’s built into the instrument that’s controlling its function,” Suchter said. “This falls into the same category in that it’s a computer-controlled instrument.”
Yang Yang,a visiting student from Tsinghua University, has been working on the behind-the-scenes of the aspects of the solar toilet such as diagnostics and tests.
“In something like an earthquake or any emergency, this system could help avoid spreading disease,” Yang said.
The revolutionary toilet systems even caught the attention of the World Toilet Organization in Singapore. Founder Jack Sim visited Caltech to get a first-hand glimpse.
“I think the end product will look rather different but this is the stage of our thinking process necessary to bring us to the ultimate goal that everyone, everywhere will have access to proper sanitation anytime they need (to) go to the toilet,” Sim said.