By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Nanotech toilet turns waste into water and electricity

by in Fitness & Wellbeing.

Source: SuSanA Secretariat/flickr

Source: SuSanA Secretariat/flickr

The world’s poorest families are more likely to have mobile phones than toilets or clean water, but they’re not necessarily better off for it. That was a notable finding of the World Bank’s report “Digital Dividends,” released on Wednesday. However, the recently-developed Nano Membrane Toilet (NMT) could revolutionize life for many of the 2.4 billion people globally who lack access to adequate toilets.

The NMT was designed with a complete lack of supporting infrastructure in mind. It does not require a sewage system, nor does it require external water or power. Rather, it uses nanotechnology to produce electricity and water from the waste (which is automatically treated with paraffin wax for odor and health reasons and is periodically removed by trained local operators – thus providing some local jobs).

Because of this need for maintenance (every six months at a minimum), lead researcher Alison Parker said the NMT would be too difficult to start in remote rural areas but it would be ideal for poor urban areas of the world. And it’s cheap — the team from the U.K.’s Cranfield University says it designed the toilet for a household of up to 10 people at a cost of just $0.05 per day per user.

The NMT project received $720,000 in September 2012 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” That campaign’s aim is to improve sanitation for people in developing countries so as to avoid illnesses like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.

The team behind the NMT is looking for private-sector funding as well. The toilet was selected as a finalist for the 4th annual Cleantech Innovate, an investment expo put on by the U.K.’s ecoConnect CIC (a green industry business group) on February 11. According to Tech Times, Jake Larsson from Cranfield University’s Centre for Competitive Creative Design will lead the pitch for the Nano Membrane Toilet to investors, industry experts, support agencies, and buyers at the Royal Institution in London.

The first real-world field tests of the NMT are scheduled in Ghana later this year. If they prove successful, then there will be huge room for expansion elsewhere in the developing world. (As a side note, the same nanotechnology could be used in other venues seeking self-sufficiency and low environmental impacts, such as yachts and military vehicles.)

The NMT may undergo further improvements in time. Tech Insider wrote:

Parker admits that the problem of toilet paper is still one the Nano Membrane Toilet has yet to resolve, as users have no choice but to toss the paper into a nearby waste bin. In the future, the team hopes to devise a way for that paper to be burnt. It’s not the most environmentally friendly disposal method, but if it means adding years onto people’s lives, it could be a winning solution.

But the toilets will only be effective in improving health if people use them instead of open defecation. As World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said in June, “It’s not just about building toilets. Having toilets is great. But the real issue is behavior change.” Thus the World Bank teamed up with Sesame Street, which created the muppet Raya as part of the show’s WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) campaign. Teaching kids from an early age and providing them with access to toilets and clean water will lead to lasting positive change.