Kohler is Manufacturing a Solar-Powered Toilet With the Gates Foundation

By Alissa Walker on at

About 2.5 billion people don't have access to basic sanitation facilities globally. One of the biggest initiatives to improve this statistic comes from the Gates Foundation, which sponsors an annual challenge to reinvent the toilet. Now big-time bathroom manufacturer Kohler is making one of the winning ideas a reality for rural India.

A group of Caltech students who won the Gates challenge in 2012 have been working on refining their proposal for two years, and debuted a prototype at the India Toilet Fair in New Delhi last spring. The toilet is essentially a mobile restroom made from a shipping container that uses solar energy to power the unit and process waste.

It doesn't even need to be hooked up to a water source: a chemical process uses the salts in urine collected from the restroom to create a strong disinfectant similar to bleach, which essentially "cleans" the toilets after they're used.

Kohler Is Manufacturing a Solar-Powered Toilet With The Gates Foundation

With Caltech supplying the engineering know-how, Kohler worked as design advisors to the team for the past two years. The group quickly realised that as effective as the toilets might be, they needed to be integrated into the culture to be accepted. Hiring sign painters, the team decorated the restroom inside and out with tile and colourful graphics that echo traditional Indian trucks.

While a mobile solution is useful for roaming the countryside, Kohler will be working to bring this idea to Indian homes. The company was awarded a grant from the Gates Foundation to refine the system with a goal of developing an affordable solution for a single-family residence. Under the grant, which was for an undisclosed amount, Kohler is doing research and development, including designing and producing five units for field testing.

Since 2011 the Gates Foundation has been giving millions of dollars to revolutionary toilet ideas, like a group of University of Colorado students who created a photovoltaic toilet which sterilises excrement and turns it into green-fuel biochar. The foundation is currently investing in toilet ideas for China. [Kohler]