Taking toilets to next level

2011-07-21 00:00

THE University of KwaZulu-Natal’s pollution research group (PRG) has received a hefty financial injection from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a groundbreaking initiative that is expected to take toilet technology and sanitation to new levels.

The foundation yesterday announced a $400 000 (R2,75 million) grant to PRG at an AfriSan conference in Rwanda.

The money forms part of the foundation’s more than $40 million in new investments, launching its water sanitation and hygiene strategy.

The university is among eight institutions chosen for the one-time project grant, and is the only one in Africa.

Explaining how the idea of an innovative toilet system came about, Professor Chris Buckley said 22 universities worldwide were invited to submit a proposal to the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge”.

Buckley, an international expert who is expected to lead the research group, said researchers envisage a 21st century toilet that could be used anywhere and will be free of utility connections, although a modest amount of electricity may be used at first.

“Our research will explore the design and implementation of an innovative toilet system that will lead to the safe disposal and recovery of valuable material from excreta from community ablution blocks.

“It will be economically accessible even for the poorest billion in the world,” said Buckley.

The PRG project team, which will also have 10 UKZN academic staff, is expected to partner with local companies.

The project will be based on ablution blocks serving informal communities eThekwini.

The team expects to modify and develop an existing urine-diversion toilet are to include three streams of waste — urine, faeces and wash water.

The solid waste and bulk objects, such as toilet paper and diapers, will be processed to produce ash for fertiliser, flue gases and steam for water recovery and energy for heating the drier and combustor, which are integral to the process.

The urine and flush water will be filtered and transferred to a water-recovery unit where a high-quality water stream will be extracted and channelled to a general water-storage tank.

The remaining concentrated urine stream will be processed to separate the urea and other salts.

However, it will require deodorising and a microbial risk analysis in case any of the separation processes fail, resulting in water-borne diseases.

It is envisaged that this water will be used for flush purposes, system cleaning and hand-washing once it is chlorinated.

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