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Toilet of the future? Runs on sun. Wins prize.

Toilet of the future wins $100,000 from Gates Foundation for solar-powered unit that recycles water and turns waste into energy. Foundation will spend $3.4 million on its 'toilet of the future' initiative.

By Bill RigbyReuters / August 15, 2012

Bill Gates, left, presents an award to Michael Hoffman of the California Institute of Technology, for the winning entry in the 'Reinventing the Toilet' Fair, Tuesday in Seattle. The event is part of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation competition to create the toilet of the future for the 2.6 billion people around the world who don't have access to modern sanitation.

Ted S. Warren/AP

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SEATTLE

Bill Gates is betting the toilet of the future for the developing world will be solar powered.

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The world's leading private philanthropist handed a $100,000 prize to the California Institute of Technology on Tuesday for its work on a self-contained, sun-powered system that recycles water and breaks down human waste into storable energy.

Gates is focusing on the need for a new type of toilet as an important part of his foundation's push to improve health in the developing world. Open defecation leads to sanitation problems that cause 1.5 million children under 5 to die each year, Gates said, and Western-syle toilets are not the answer as they demand a complex sewer infrastructure and use too much water.

The Microsoft Corp co-founder is looking to change that by sparking new inventions in toilet technology, which he says has not fundamentally changed since the invention of the flush toilet in 1775.

"Imagine what's possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead," Gates said at his foundation's Seattle headquarters on Tuesday. "Many of these innovations will not only revolutionize sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on traditional flush toilets in wealthy nations."

His foundation announced $3.4 million in new funding on Tuesday for toilet projects being worked on by various organizations, bringing total investment in its "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge" to about $6.5 million.

About 2.6 billion people, or 40 percent of world's population -- mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia -- lack access to safe sanitation and are forced to defecate in the open, according to Gates.

Last year the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave grants to eight universities around the world to help tackle the problem by creating a hygienic toilet that uses little or no water, is safe and affordable and can transform waste into energy, clean water and nutrients.

CREATES ENERGY

Gates presented prizes on Tuesday to the teams that showed the most progress, handing Caltech the first prize of $100,000 for its working model of a solar-powered bathroom, where a solar panel produces power for an electrochemical reactor that breaks down feces and urine into hydrogen gas, which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells to provide a back-up energy source for night operation or use in low-sunlight conditions.

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