OPINION

Small-scale sanitation systems could help save billions of lives

A functioning sanitation system is crucial to our modern living standards. Picture: Shutterstock.
A functioning sanitation system is crucial to our modern living standards. Picture: Shutterstock.

We often marvel at the wonderful health system we have and the improvements in prevention and treatment of diseases that has seen an increase in average life expectancy from just 52.9 years for people born in 1900 to 82.9 years for people born today.

An additional 30 years has been gained over little more than a century.

This has just been the cream on the top, though. As Isaac Newton said, "if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants"; and one of the critical aspects to our increasing life expectancy and health outcomes is sanitation.

One of the critical aspects to our increasing life expectancy and health outcomes is sanitation.

Throughout history and even today, if sanitation systems are not sufficient, people are sicker, diseases spread and people die. It may not be the most exciting topic to talk about, but a functioning sanitation system is crucial to our modern living standards.

Unfortunately, there are 4.2 billion people in the world right now who lack safe sanitation methods and 525,000 children under the age of five die each year due to poor sanitation. It is the second leading cause of death in that age group.

Many people credit the Romans with the first sewer system. The Romans certainly had an advanced system of eleven aqueducts and a sewer system that was built around 500 BC, but the Mesopotamians introduced the world to clay sewer pipes and a wastewater removal system around 4000 BC.

Most modern sanitation systems focus on a flush toilet, as invented by Sir John Harrington in 1596. The modern toilet is often attributed to Thomas Crapper, but he invented the ballcock for a flush toilet.

The flush toilet helps remove the waste products from one location to be dealt with elsewhere. At one stage it involved dropping raw sewage into rivers or the ocean before large-scale treatment plants were introduced. But constructing these systems involves large amounts of money and stable governments.

Is there a better way?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation asked the scientific world to develop small-scale sanitation systems. And they put up US$200 million to encourage researchers.

The foundation wanted a toilet that removed pathogens and converted the waste to energy, clean water and nutrients and it needed to run without access to grid electricity or external water. Prototypes so far approach the problem from different angles.

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One example uses bands on rollers to separate solids from liquids and then solids are pushed through an activated carbon filter. That uses solar panels to produce electricity to break down the molecular bonds within the salts to produce chlorine to kill pathogens. Another example extracts urine and makes it safe to use for hand-washing. Yet another dries out urine and faeces and turns them in to a burnt ash and water.

My favourite is from the Duke University in North Carolina. It needs a small amount of power - which is provided by solar panels.

The filtered liquid waste is used for flushing the toilet. The solids are burned and the heat from the burning is then used to dry the next load of solids ready to be burnt. The waste material to come out is simply sterile ash. The next stage for all of these models is to manufacture high volumes and find a government or philanthropic organisation to fund mass production.

I wish all the readers of Tech Talk a Happy New Year, and look forward to continuing to bring you the latest developments from around the world. If too much tech is not enough for you, download the latest episode of Tech Talk with Mathew Dickerson and listen to more tech news.

  • Mathew Dickerson is a technologist, futurist and host of the Tech Talk podcast.
This story Small-scale sanitation systems could help save billions of lives first appeared on The Canberra Times.