Reinventing the toilet

A team of scientists at TU Delft has come together to help urban informal settlements around the world get better, cleaner and more cost effective toilet systems.

A collaboration between two TU Delft faculties, 3mE and IDE, the project is part of the Reinvent the Toilet initiative. Currently, it has on board Dr Jan Carel Diehl, Dr Johan Molenbroek, Anne Jansen, Gerwin Jansen and Miguel Melgarejo and eight students. Their design is aimed at creating a waste disposal system that is human-centered, improves sanitisation and is a high-tech solution in a low-tech environment.

“The project started in 2011 as part of a Reinvent The Toilet competition organised by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. There was a tech-push in 2012 and feasible ideas were given grants to take the work to phase two,” explains Anne.

As per the Gates Foundation website, they are funding research to develop ‘waterless, hygienic toilets that do not require a sewer connection or electricity and cost less than five cents per user per day.’

TU’s model uses a technology developed by 3mE that converts human waste into hydrogen and carbon monoxide through microwave technology. The energy produced is then used to maintain the microwave and other parts of the system, thus creating a self-sustaining system.

“The challenge now is for us to find a way to incorporate that technology into a working business model, one that takes into account the constraints of densely populated slums,” explains Anne.  

Gerwin, the tech expert of the team, says keeping the poo dry is also big challenge. “The earlier prototype was a Diverting Loo, which meant users had to poop and pee at different ends of the toilet. But, that involved reconditioning user behaviour far too much. Now we’re trying to find a way to use the traditional toilet system, but in a way that makes the technology effective,” he explains.

This summer, the team is off to Ahmedabad to work on feasibility studies and research in local slums. “Defecation is a very personal act and it will be a challenge to ask anyone to give us live demonstrations. Especially women. But, there are a lot of cultural nuances and barriers that we need to understand before we can design the finished product,” adds Anne.

Given their years of scatological study, the group talks matter-of-factly, even at meal time, about all things poo. “Of course our friends crack a lot of jokes about it. We’re used to it now. In fact, we call ourselves the Super Poo Team,” laughs Anne.

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