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Noble Work: Improving Global Sanitation

“If Thomas Crapper were around today, he would find our toilets quite familiar.” That’s what Bill Gates reportedly told reporters when referring to the Victorian manufacturer of the toilet. And Gates is right—toilets and sanitation have barely improved, or changed, since the late 1590s.

Environmental engineering graduate student Tate Rogers has spent the past year working on improving sanitation — a big problem given that disease spread by unsanitary latrines causes the deaths of 4,000 children a day. According to data tracked by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation one in three people (that’s 2.6 billion) don’t have a safe place to use the restroom.

Help Is on the Way

Rogers’s idea came from an assignment in his undergraduate design course taught by Bob Borden, professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering.

Rogers wondered about using an age-old tool – the auger – to improve sewage management in developing countries by targeting an unsanitary but necessary job; the emptying of latrines by hand.

This solution earned him top grades. And under Borden’s guidance last fall, Rogers’s idea became one of 2,000 global applications (including companies and students) to land one of 61 water and sanitation grants from the Gates Foundation. The first phase grant, for $100,000, is to help design, produce and test the technology.

“Everyone liked the simplicity and cost effectiveness of my design,” Rogers says. “It was a huge honor.”

Moving Forward

Now Rogers, along with his team (led by Borden,) is prototyping and field testing the equipment. From his Mann Hall laboratory he explains how it works. A stationary pipe is inserted around the auger to lift the waste up and out, through a hose to a nearby truck or into smaller, transportable containers.

Since last fall Rogers has reduced the production cost to $750, and estimates it will cost less than $5 to empty a pit latrine using his device, compared to $30 to $80 for current technologies.

Tate Rogers outside his laboratory.

Meanwhile, in August Rogers’ was one of 30 teams invited to exhibit their technology at the “Reinvent the Toilet Fair” in Seattle. Rogers enjoyed networking with sanitation experts who will hopefully help him implement the technology in a developing country this spring. Attending a water sanitation conference in South Africa this month with professor Francis de los Reyes will also be fruitful.

More Work Ahead

But there remains much to do. Rogers is applying for a $1 million phase 2 grant next and although competition is fierce, Rogers hopes that successfully testing the technology in a developing country will bolster his application.

The auger design must be modified to accommodate different sanitation situations, which vary from country to country, Rogers has found. Many pits contain trash, for instance, which means the design must not clog easily. He must also complete his thesis.

But the project is highly collaborative. Rogers consults with his professors weekly and his engineering studies always help.  De los Reyes’ class on sanitation in the developing world showed specifically how dangerous poor sanitation can be, he says.

For Rogers, the auger project has been a fascinating experience tackling a real-world challenge.

“I’ve traveled, met interesting people and done helpful work. I feel blessed.”

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