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

5 Toilet Technologies of the Future

Gates Foundation / Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology)
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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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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Medicine
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

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science
A New Analysis of Chopin's Heart Reveals the Cause of His Death

For years, experts and music lovers alike have speculated over what caused celebrated composer Frederic Chopin to die at the tragically young age of 39. Following a recent examination of his heart, Polish scientists have concluded that Chopin succumbed to tuberculosis, just as his death certificate states, according to The New York Times.

When Chopin died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris, where he had lived, while his heart was transported to his home city of Warsaw, Poland. Chopin—who appeared to have been ill with tuberculosis (TB)—was terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, and nostalgic for his national roots. He asked for his heart to be cut out, and his sister later smuggled it past foreign guards and into what is now Poland.

Preserved in alcohol—likely cognac—and stored in a crystal jar, Chopin's heart was laid to rest inside Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. (It was removed by the Germans in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, and later returned.) But rumors began to swirl, as the same doctor tasked with removing the heart had also conducted an autopsy on the composer's body, according to the BBC.

The physician's original notes have been lost, but it's said he concluded that Chopin had died not from TB but from "a disease not previously encountered." This triggered some scholars to theorize that Chopin had died from cystic fibrosis, or even a form of emphysema, as the sickly musician suffered from chronic respiratory issues. Another suspected condition was mitral stenosis, or a narrowing of the heart valves.

Adhering to the wishes of a living relative, the Polish church and government have refused to let scientists conduct genetic tests on Chopin's heart. But over the years, teams have periodically checked up on the organ to ensure it remains in good condition, including once in 1945.

In 2014, a group of Chopin enthusiasts—including Polish scientists, religious officials, and members of the Chopin Institute, which researches and promotes Chopin's legacy—were given the go-ahead to hold a clandestine evening meeting at Holy Cross Church. There, they removed Chopin's heart from its perch inside a stone pillar to inspect it for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Fearing the jar's alcohol would evaporate, the group added hot wax to its seal and took more than 1000 photos of its contents. Pictures of the surreptitious evening procedure weren't publicly released, but were shown to the AP, which described Chopin's preserved heart as "an enlarged white lump."

It's unclear what prompted a follow-up investigation on Chopin's heart, or who allowed it, but an early version of an article in the American Journal of Medicine states that experts—who did not open the jar—have newly observed that the famed organ is "massively enlarged and floppy," with lesions and a white, frosted appearance. These observations have prompted them to diagnose the musician's cause of death as pericarditis, which is an inflammation of tissue around the heart. This likely stemmed from his tuberculosis, they said.

Some scientists might still clamor at the prospect of testing tissue samples of Chopin's heart. But Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences—who was involved in this latest examination—told The Guardian that it was unnecessary to disturb what many consider to be a symbol of national pride.

"Some people still want to open it in order to take tissue samples to do DNA tests to support their ideas that Chopin had some kind of genetic condition," Witt said. "That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart, and in any case, I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin."

[h/t The New York Times]

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