North Carolina Researchers Reinvent The Toilet

North Carolina Researchers Reinvent The Toilet

5:00am Dec 28, 2017
The TOWR Mobile Unit is currently used for testing and housed at RTI International’s facility in RTP. ©RTI International 2017.

Imagine a bathroom that isn’t connected to an outside plumbing system. Where would everything go?

Scientists from the Research Triangle Institute have an answer.

In their toilet design, liquid waste is sanitized, recycled and reused for flush water. Solid waste is combusted, then turned to ash.

The project began with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With over 2 billion people on Earth lacking access to decent sanitation, they put out the challenge for researchers to find a global solution.

The technology is being developed by RTI in partnership with Duke University, Colorado State University and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. NASA is a partner too, bringing its waste management strategies from the space station into the project.

Jeff Piascik is a senior research scientist at RTI. He spoke with WFDD’s Eddie Garcia about their mission to ‘Reinvent The Toilet.’

Interview Highlights

On program rollout/areas of need:

Liquid waste is sanitized and reused for flush water. Solid waste is dried, then combusted and turned to ash. ©RTI International 2017.

Over 50 percent of people in India practice open defecation. So there’s zero access for these folks to sanitization solutions. As these countries get more urbanized you’re going to overwhelm the traditional sewer systems. The infrastructure is so poor that they leak, or dump out into a pond at the end of a community.  

We think one way to attack this problem is to develop decentralized solutions. Meaning that, let's find a way to capture that waste stream on-site and treat it on-site.

On military use:

Sixty percent of all injuries sustained in the last two conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been support staff. These personnel are bringing in commodities and technologies to bases. You also have waste that is trucked out. So these people are at risk, they become targets. So they [the military] approached us and said, 'Hey, can we adapt this technology to a military standard?'

This latest program is dubbed the TOWR (Toilet with On-site Waste Remediation). What we’re trying to do is provide them with a solution that takes all the human waste from a facility and process it on-site. So not only will you not need any water, but you won’t need to truck out waste because we reduce it all down to ash.

On crisis situations:

FEMA, or UNICEF would benefit from a solution like this in terms of whenever there’s a natural disaster. What are the first things that go out? Well, it’s power, then sanitation and water. Internationally we see refugee camps as a high priority. So we want to help where help is needed first and foremost.


Support your
public radio station