How is Bill Gates getting on at reinventing the toilet?

A few years ago I wrote disparagingly about Bill Gate’s Reinvent the toilet challenge, after it declared a hydrogen fuel cell toilet the best innovation to bring toilets to the 2.4 billion people without one. I haven’t come back to the competition since, but there have been further rounds and the Gates’ have invested millions in alternative toilets of one kind or another since. I thought I’d better check in again, and there are now . I was also pleased to see that there are a variety of local challenges and trials in various locations, as there isn’t going to be a one size fits all solution.

2.4 billion people without a toilet is a huge challenge, especially since we can’t roll out flushing toilets everywhere. There isn’t enough water, and the sewers and treatment plants would be prohibitively expensive. If climate change brings more drought, those lucky enough to have a flushing toilet today might start to wonder why such a wasteful technology became so commonplace.

I’ve featured a bunch of waterless toilets before, and there are quite a few in the Gates programme that I could mention. I’m going to go with this one because it’s from Cranfield University, which is practically local. It’s called the , and here’s how it works:

I have a few questions about this still. The challenge was to build something that doesn’t need a water, sewage or electrical connection. Is it powered by the poo? Because I see an incineration process in there, and that must be energy intensive. I don’t suppose paper can go through the archimedes screw, and if it got jammed it would be a nightmare to unblock.

On the plus side, I love the simplicity of closing the lid, and all those cogs flip round underneath to clean it. If it does work self-contained, then you could deliver it and stick it in an appropriate room like a piece of furniture – no plumbing or installation required. If I ever live the middle class dream and install a downstairs toilet in my house, I’d like one of these.

The energy sources of transport

The IEA and International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released a global overview of renewable energy earlier this month, . It’s a useful guide to how countries are incentivising and supporting renewable energy, and I’d recommend it if you’re at all interested in how policy can support renewable electricity, heating and cooling, and transport.

For the purposes of this blog, this is the image that caught my eye: a well presented graph of transport fuels.

This is why we need to keep talking about transport. The percentage of global transport that can be called sustainable is a mere 3.1%, and that’s being generous to ethanol. Almost a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions are from transport, and we’re barely making a dent in fossil fuels just yet.

On the other hand, highlighting the situation now provides us a baseline to observe from. Transport running on renewable electricity is only 0.3% right now, but it’s going to boom, and I look forward to being able to report those figures in future.

How MycoWorks grow leather out of fungus

You can do a lot with mycellium. As we’ve explored before, you can grow it into all kinds of shapes and produce packaging, which is already helping to reduce the use of plastic. If the company gets its way, it could also provide a substitute for leather.

Their fungi leather is grown to the shape required in just two weeks – a fraction of the time, cost and environmental impact of animal leather, and with no animal welfare concerns. The mycelium grows on waste such as straw, so it’s a hybrid agricultural/industrial process that, if you’ll pardon the expression, fits squarely into a circular economy.

It’s early days yet, and their material is some way from commercial availability. But the technique has been proven with packaging materials, so I suspect we may be hearing more about mycoleather in future. I’ll be keeping an eye on this one, and if you’d like to do the same, click on over and follow

GravityLight and the importance of a good ending

In my study I have a rather ingenious gadget called a GravityLight, an innovation that I wrote about in 2014, sponsored and received in the post last year. It’s an LED light that is powered, as the name suggests, by gravity. The user pulls a cord which lifts a weight, and the falling weight powers the light. It was invented for developing world contexts and it was assembled in a factory in Kenya. I thought it was a clever idea when I saw the crowdfunding campaign and I have been keeping an eye on the technology ever since.

This week there has been some news from the , the organisation that was set up to promote the light in Africa. Testing in the field has revealed a few complications. Customers who have bought the GravityLight do like them – they like the ease of use, and that unlike solar lights you don’t need to leave them outside to charge. However, since the GravityLight was invented the cost of solar has come down, and more people own smartphones. If a family on a low income is going to spend $25 on a gadget to replace their kerosene lamp, it will need to charge smartphones as well as provide light. This is not possible with a GravityLight.

And so after consultation with the communities for whom it was invented, the foundation has . This is rather sad after all those years of research, numerous prototypes, and so much hard work. But I applaud the GravityLight Foundation for taking the step, and there are a couple of reasons why I wanted to write this post.

First, when you first hear about an innovation on the internet, you come in fairly late in the process. It’s easy to forget just how much work goes into one of these campaigns, the blood sweat and tears that any inventor goes through, often for years at a time before they never get to the crowdfunding point. The first reason to write about it is just to honour the hard work that went into GravityLight, a technology that had not been attempted before, and that was for the benefit of some of the world’s poorest people.

Secondly, we hear about new technologies through the internet’s love of novelty. A lot of green tech reporting is simply ‘look, what a brilliant idea’, endlessly repeated.  We’re less good at asking serious questions about the merits of the technology, as I wrote about with solar water purification recently. Since the ongoing development of a product isn’t news, we rarely get the end of the story. An idea that had a massive buzz around it may turn out to be fatally flawed, or not work quite as well as expected, or ultimately prove uneconomic. We don’t always hear about the failure rate of crowdfunded ideas, and it leads us to idolise the process of innovation, and undervalue the hard graft and rigorous testing that goes with responsible product development.

In a development context, that testing is even more important, and that’s the final reason I wanted to mention GravityLight’s closure. It’s vital that innovations for the poor are tested with the intended market and that users’ views are given full consideration. When this isn’t done properly, solutions are pushed on communities that didn’t want them, funders are misled, and money is wasted.

Take the example of the play pump. On paper this looks like a fantastic idea: a roundabout that would tap the youthful energy of playing children to pump water in remote African villages. . They were more expensive and less effective than hand pumps, and since children were in school much of the day, adults were left trudging round the roundabout to get their water. They weren’t well maintained and quickly got stiff and useless as play equipment. And yet hundreds of them were installed, funded by enthusiastic donors who were unaware of how ineffective they were. But the charity was getting lots of attention, everyone loved the idea and it was very hard to walk away from.

To their credit, the developers of the playpump did eventually change tack, and now they only install them in schools and with ten-year maintenance arrangements. But millions of dollars were wasted, and diverted away from other more effective water solutions.

That won’t happen with the GravityLight, because the foundation took the time to listen, take the views of African customers seriously, and put their own egos to one side. Kudos. And since they’re inventors, they’re already taking the learning from the project and applying it to the next idea. The uses a similar mechanism to the GravityLight, but it’s a pull rope that’s hand powered rather than relying on the falling weight. It’s more powerful, easier to install and it can charge phones. I’m backing it, and consider this .

Building of the week: The Beacon

A recent episode of the BBC’s addressed the issue of sustainable homes. Among the various locations explored, the one that caught my eye was a development called .

A 17 storey ‘vertical village’ currently under construction in Hemel Hempstead, the Beacon claims to be zero emissions and zero pollution. The whole building is solar powered, using the sun for heat and for electricity. The roof would be inadequate to provide for over 200 flats, so the solar panels are all around the building instead.

One thing that’s particularly clever is that the building harvests the sun’s heat and uses it for hot water and heating, but also for electricity. Sustainable architects usually orient a building and add shades and brise-soleils to stop overheating in the summer. The Beacon captures that waste heat instead and puts it to good use, providing renewable hot water and banking heat in the basement for the winter. Excess heat, presumably on particularly hot days, can be to generate power.

With these multiple forms of solar power in play, the energy capacity of the building is actually greater than residents’ projected needs, and it should be able to export energy for another few hundred homes. Residents themselves can expect zero bills, and free energy for life is a prominent selling point.

Other interesting features include a heat exchanger that extracts the warmth from waste water as it goes down the drain. Green buildings capture the heat from air as it leaves houses through ventilation, so why not water? Otherwise the water from baths and showers is just warming the sewers. The basement has a large automated car park and an electric car charging scheme. It gets warm down there, so heat is harvested from the basement too.

Currently the building is being marketed as an exclusive and elite housing development. Much is made of the deluxe kitchens and bathrooms and it is being sold as part of a luxury lifestyle. However, if the building can prove itself as a luxury development, then the technology can be applied to other forms of housing in future. Most importantly, the people who would benefit most from zero bills would be those on low incomes. The Beacon may serve to pilot an approach which would then come into its own in the context of social housing.

I’m also curious to see if the waste heat generation works as planned. If it does, that’s a technology that could be widely applicable in developing countries – especially those with more sunlight than Britain gets. It could be a cheaper form of solar power than PV. Millions of people are going to be re-housed in residential towers across India, China and Africa in the coming decades. If those towers can include low cost renewable energy designed into the building, The Beacon may be pioneering something rather special.