Student researchers serve as key component of Gates Foundation project

January 28, 2013

After receiving a $780,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as part of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, Karl G. Linden, professor of environmental engineering, is leading a team of researchers, including faculty and environmental and chemical engineering researchers and graduate students, to come up with a way to provide safe, sanitary waste disposal in developing communities, and the experiences of these student researchers plays a key component to the success of the project.

Linden and his research team are looking at solving the problem of poor sanitation by harnessing concentrated solar energy that is transmitted to the waste chambers, he says. The solar energy would then heat and char the waste, allowing it to be safely handled and reused to recover nutrients for agriculture. In many developing communities, diseases often result from the unsanitary conditions of latrines, but this model would avoid exposure to pathogens and help those communities safely handle their fecal waste.

“It’s a futuristic concept, and we have the technology to bring it to bear today, but it’s really thinking outside the box,” Linden says. “It’s thinking differently about how we currently handle our toilet waste, and that’s the idea behind the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.”

Since the beginning, students have been involved in this project when they contributed ideas to the proposal process, and they are using their experiences at CU-Boulder to develop the research, Linden says. With their academic and field experiences in developing communities, such as Engineers Without Borders and the Engineering for Developing Communities program, the student researchers have performed extensive work in serving developing communities, which has well-prepared them for the challenges presented in this project.

“We’re well-poised to think differently because our students are very innovative,” Linden says. “They’ve had a lot of experiences in developing countries, and they’ve seen problems firsthand. With their technical training in engineering and their practical experiences in the field, we have a good team to bring a potential solution to the Gates Foundation, and we hope to fully move forward with the development of that solution over this and the next couple of years.”

With only 15 months to create a prototype, student researchers have the chance to be part of a solution to a major global issue in a constantly evolving environment, Linden says. Student researchers must be inventive in their thinking and quick to make those ideas reality. While researchers are recent graduates or current graduate students, undergraduate students will have the chance to become involved when the prototyping begins, which could be as early as this summer.

“It gives the CU students a chance to work on a real challenge that’s one of the biggest problems the world faces,” Linden says. “We’re working in an urgent, exciting atmosphere with a dynamic research team, so we’re constantly thinking on our feet and trying to develop something rapidly.”