Sanitation researchers are tackling public health challenges with better toilets

Duke researchers reinvent the toilet for women in India

Sanitation researchers are tackling public health challenges with well-designed toilets
April 26, 2018

Toilet shortages cause public health crises

One of the biggest health challenges facing people living in developing nations is the lack of sanitation. The lack of places to do what nature requires people to do promotes diseases, pollutes water, and creates a multitude of health and safety problems.

So in 2011 the Gates Foundation launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, in an effort to bring sustainable solutions to the 2.5 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to safe, affordable sanitation. Researchers at RTI International in Research Triangle Park designed a reinvented toilet. View the UNC-TV science story on their work here.

Duke researchers carry on the work of reinventing the toilet

Some of those researchers who started the RTI program are now at Duke University. The Duke team has installed an experimental “reinvented toilet” at a women’s dormitory at a textile mill in Coimbatore, India.

They hope the real world trial will lead to a commercialized solution. “Data suggest that women are disproportionately affected by poor sanitation options, so we’re focusing our first full system test on gaining their acceptance and supporting their needs,” said Brian Stoner, a research professor and director of Duke’s Center for WaSH-Aid (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infectious Disease). Stoner was part of the original team at RTI.

The system was installed after surveying the women working at the mill. The responses showed while workers wanted the facility to be safe, the look and feel of the facility were also important. The system will be tested for one year.

Researchers say the real world test is not just to put the sanitation system through its paces, but it will also test how to gain community acceptance.The women workers will have their choice between regular toilet facilities and the experimental system. Learning which ones they prefer and why will be just as important as creating a technological solution to the problem.

How the new toilet works

The system works by using a sort of corkscrew conveyor belt to separate solid and liquid waste. The solids are dried and burned using a novel combustion unit to produce energy. The energy is used in turn for both drying more solid waste and powering the electrochemical disinfection of the liquid waste.

While the treated liquid is not drinkable, it can be safely discharged or reused for flushing.

“This is an important year for the project,” said project co-leader Jeff Glass, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke. “The real world test will prove that our system works and that people will use it, but it will also show us where we can make improvements.” The engineering team also hopes to start partnering with potential manufacturers who want to translate the prototype into a commercial product.


—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

Related Resources:

Video: Reinventing the Toilet.