LONDON -- What do a Western University engineer, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and a toilet have in common?
Creating safe and sustainable sanitation for the 2.6 billion people worldwide who don't have it -- at least that's the goal.
Put another way, they want human waste to disappear -- literally.
Jason Gerhard, an environmental engineering professor at Western, is working with a team from the University of Toronto and Queensland University in New Zealand to develop a toilet that operates without piped water, sewers, or electricity.
And the team just got a $2.2- million boost from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to build a prototype of their design.
"It's exciting for us to be able to work on such an important problem that can really have an impact for so many. Millions of children are dying from diseases due to poor sanitation every year so to be able to make some kind of impact is very exciting," Gerhard said.
Last year, the Gates Foundation invited the brightest engineering minds to develop a toilet that could be used throughout the developing world, where infrastructure is limited and millions die from diseases stemming from poor sewage facilities.
Engineers from the University of Toronto's Centre for Global Engineering partnered with Gerhard and Jose Terero from Queensland University to design a toilet that disinfects and incinerates waste.
In August, the team explained the science behind their toilet to Gates at an event in Seattle. Meeting the philanthropic billionaire was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Gerhard.
"Meeting him personally was a thrill," he said. "He's putting an enormous effort and an enormous amount of money into making the world a better place."
Working with local partners in Bangladesh, the team hopes to have an operational prototype toilet made out of readily available material that can be maintained locally by December 2013.