Nanomembrane toilets could be part of solving Safe Sanitation for more than 2.3 billion people

The Nano Membrane Toilet – a toilet which aims to treat human waste in the home without external energy or water – will join 35 other low carbon technology companies pitching to an audience of investors, buyers, industry specialists and support agencies on Thursday, 11th February 2016 at the Royal Institution in London. Jake Larsson, a PhD student in Cranfield University’s Centre for Competitive Creative Design, will lead the pitch.

* no country has escaped poverty without solving sanitation
* 1.5 million children die each year of diarrheal diseases, much of which could be prevented with improved sanitation and safe drinking water.
* Over 2.3 billion people need safe sanitation

The Nano Membrane Toilet is currently being developed by researchers at Cranfield University. The toilet aims to treat human waste in the home without external energy or water. It has an innovative flush which does not require water but still blocks odor. It uses membrane technology produce clean water, and solid waste is gasified to convert it to ash and energy to power the membrane process.

The plan is for the toilet to be rented to households through a local organization, helping to spread the costs to stay within the Gate Foundation’s challenge of keeping the cost of the toilet below US 5 cents per person per day.

If all goes well, the toilet could also find applications elsewhere like the military, construction industry, yachts, or outdoor events.

Currently, more than 650 million people in the world do not have access to clean water, and more than 2.3 billion don’t have access to a safe, private toilet. Researchers around the world are working to help solve this problem, but high-tech solutions, such as adding solar panels, are usually too expensive to be practical.

About 1.5 million children die each year of diarrheal diseases, much of which could be prevented with improved sanitation and safe drinking water. A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported development, field testing and commercialization of these injection-molded plastic toilets, which cost about $300.

Compost toilets

Hundreds of Gates foundation’s toilets are used around Ecuador and Africa, in rural and urban settings where the government has yet to install sewage systems and may not for decades. The models have evolved over the years, with the earliest versions cobbled together out of wood, PVC pipe, and a bicycle’s spoke and chain.

In one version, you pull the lever and your deposit disappears under a trap door – poof! – you don’t have to think about it again. At least not immediately. The compost rolls down a flexible pipe into a plastic barrel that fills up, then is capped and set aside to dry out. After six months, the compost is ready to sprinkle as fertilizer. It’s not intended for lettuce and other food crops, to avoid possible contamination by E. coli and other pathogens, but it’s perfectly safe for flowers and even fruit orchards.

Every day, around 2 million tons of human waste are disposed of in water channels. Among other contributing factors, this sanitation problem limits the availability of uncontaminated drinking water—especially in developing nations, which often lack the proper treatment and drainage facilities.

The EPA calls combined sewers “remnants of the country’s early infrastructure.” The first sewers weren’t designed to handle the constant and huge stream of wastes from our toilets, because they were invented when we didn’t have any toilets. Sewers were originally built to solve the problems of cities that were flooded with their own refuse—garbage, animal manure, and human waste left in the open rather than in a privy or latrine—during every rainstorm.

The Gates Foundation has also partnered with manufacturing company Janicki Bioenergy on a device called the Omni Processor, which is able to convert feces into safe drinking water. The device’s steam engine makes its own energy for burning human waste so cities or towns don’t have to resort to energy-draining activities like burning diesel fuel. The Omni Processor was recently implemented in Dakar, Senegal, through an auspicious pilot program, with plans to eventually sell the product to wealthier nations.

If developing nations are turning toward new sanitation technology, why isn’t this shift happening in developed cities as well? One obvious explanation is that developed cities already have a functioning sewer system. But the real answer, Arbogast says, goes beyond the fact that “developed cities aren’t really innovating.” He contends that new technology will have to be tested in developing nations before developed ones are likely to follow suit.

The World Health Organization reports that 3.4 million people—mainly children—die each year from water-related diseases like cholera, dysentery, or typhoid. In a city like Dhaka, Bangladesh, Arbogast says, only 2 percent of waste is being treated at a plant. And in many cases, septic tanks carry human waste directly into the street—leaving city residents exposed to numerous pathogens. “No community has ever put themselves out of poverty without addressing sanitation,” Arbogast says.