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Gates Foundation / Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology)

5 Toilet Technologies of the Future

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Gates Foundation / Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology)

Most of us take it for granted that we can go #1 or #2 into a lovely porcelain throne, press a lever, and the messy details are taken care of. But for an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide, a commode is a hole in the ground—at best. And that hole isn't just smelly; it's a source of disease. Here's a roundup of some promising toilet-related technologies that could make pooping safe for the world. All are prototypes today, but could be ready for business soon.

1. Solar-Powered Poop Blaster

System diagram of the poop blaster (technically, "Porta-toilet Facility").

Researchers at Caltech developed a solar-powered waste-treatment system that turns human waste into fuel. The unit is designed to serve as many as 500 people per day, sporting two big benefits: it's powered by the sun; and it produces hydrogen, electricity, and water. (That water can be used for flushing the toilet again.)

How it works: the Caltech design works at the processing end of a conventional toilet/urinal setup. First, waste flows into a holding tank that starts a bacterial digestion process (yes, gross). Then, the waste flows into a a 40-liter electrochemical reactor that uses electrodes to convert it into hydrogen gas. From there, the hydrogen can be used in fuel cells—handy if you have to do your business at night, when the solar array won't produce any juice.

2. Don't Cross the Streams!

Researchers from Eawag pose with their prototype in 2012. (It's intended for use by one person at a time.)

This "three-stream" toilet separates urine and feces using a clever mechanical process.

How it works: When you squat over the toilet, it automatically swivels open and becomes ready for business (this is decidedly unlike the "Honeybucket" open-air poop-pile model you may have experienced at outdoor events...). When you're finished, you work a foot-pump to flush the toilet, and can (optionally) observe your poop's progress through a clear plastic window. Because the waste streams (urine and feces) are separated, they can be treated independently, making the job of waste processing easier. The toilet also automatically recycles water used for flushing, and politely seals itself when you stand up.

Researchers at Eawag (the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) see this toilet being paired with a waste-processing system to make a complete solution for developing countries. Plus, they made their prototype a lovely light blue, making it an appealing place to take a pitstop.

An Eawag toilet being installed in Uganda. Photo courtesy of EOOS/Eawag.

3. Don't Pass Gas, Make Gas

The Delft University of Technology made a proof-of-concept system that turns dried feces into hydrogen gas.

How it works: First the poop is dried out, then it undergoes a plasma gasification process. Gasification is similar to plain old burning, but it happens at much higher temperatures—and with a different goal in mind. Plasma gasification happens at temperatures higher than 2,500°C (!), when an electric current passes through a gas, creating plasma, which in turn is exposed to the pre-dried feces. What you get out the other side is primarily hydrogen, which is then stored in a fuel cell.

Aside from the hydrogen fuel product, this technology is interesting because its super-high temperature promises to kill all pathogens in the feces. That's a big public health bonus!

The plasma gasification reactor.

4. Divert the Urine; Burn the Rest

Researchers at the National University of Singapore focused on the power of pee for their urine-centric fertilizer-creation process.

How it works: Using a urine-diversion toilet, urine is separated from feces. The feces is dried in a solar dryer and then burned. The heat from burning the feces evaporates the urine, which results in two key products: water and fertilizer (urine contains plenty of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—unlike Brawndo, urine's got what plants crave). In the end, you have ash, water, and fertilizer, all of which can be used in agriculture.

One key benefit of this system is that it doesn't require any electricity to operate—it's all manual. That's also arguably a drawback; running the whole thing by hand is a lot harder than many of the automated processes above. Then again, hey, free fertilizer!

The National University of Singapore prototype.

5. The Poop Grinder

The prototype. If you watch the video below, you'll find out where in this contraption the poop goes in and comes out.

Professor A.J. Johannes of Oklahoma State University led a research group to mechanically disinfect poop, making it safer to handle. Well, maybe not to handle, but to...deal with.

How it works: Johannes explains, "Feces is a viscous substance. Heat is produced when viscous substances undergo shear." Johannes and his team created a machine in which a cone sits inside a shell; the design is akin to two ice cream cones stacked together. You insert the poop in the gap between the outer cone and the inner cone, rotate the cones, and the poop gets surprisingly hot (as high as 200°C just from shear force produced by rotation) as it passes through. That heat kills a lot of the hazardous stuff living in the poop, thus reducing disease risk from untreated waste. It's energy-efficient, because you simply have to turn the crank, rather than heat the poop directly.

Johannes gave a TEDx talk about his team's progress. It's full of classic science poop jokes, including my favorite: "Plastic is a non-Newtonian fluid...and so is feces." Also, "Mashed potatoes, curiously enough, are very, very similar [to human feces]. I know, I know." Enjoy:

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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