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Here’s a lofty goal for a group of college students: design a self-cleaning, mobile toilet that conserves water and energy and recycles waste. The five Caltech undergrands who did just that won the 2012 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenge to reinvent the toilet—and they finally saw their design come to life in November. With support from the foundation and American manufacturing company Kohler, the group is providing India with solar-powered toilets made from shipping containers—a portable invention that hopes to mitigate the country’s sanitation problem.

Modern plumbing isn’t ingrained in Indian culture because toilets aren’t widely available, nor are they commonly used. Beliefs about hygiene, cleanliness, purity, and sanitation vary depending on religion and cultural practice; for example, some groups don’t consider children’s feces harmful. The Caltech students’ mobile restroom, which uses chemicals and solar energy to process waste, is painted colorfully to match graphics commonly seen in local culture, and incorporates vibrant tile and murals from Indian painters to help reduce the stigma of using restrooms.

The winning design operates on less than five cents a day. The solar panels convert sunlight into energy that breaks down waste and water that have been flushed. The waste is transformed into fertilizer, then the water is pumped, treated with chemicals, and recycled back into the toilet or used for irrigation. The bathroom also includes a urinal and a sink. (Photo: Facebook) The bathrooms can be “transported anywhere in the world,” according to Caltech professor Michael Hoffmann. Another requirement of the challenge was to improve mortality rates of the population. Water pollution from defecation can cause diarrhea and cholera, and residents often use contaminated water for drinking, washing, and cooking—spreading parasites. Encouraging the use of toilets also reduces the amount of pollutants in the air. Open defecation and urination emit greenhouse gases, specifically pollutants that affect ozone in the troposphere

 

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Date: 2014-12-12


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