Duke has received a $10.7 million grant to conduct research that could potentially save thousands of lives—all with a simple flush.

The University's new partnership with RTI International—a nonprofit organization in the Research Triangle—and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is aimed at designing practical solutions to global sanitation problems. With the funding from the Gates Foundation, Duke could become a premier center for sanitation research and clean water project development, said Jeffrey Glass, professor of electrical and computer engineering and a member of the team that received the grant.

“We’re basically designing small-scale chemical plants,” he said.

The grant will bring together faculty and students from the Global Health Institute, Sanford School of Public Policy, Pratt School of Engineering and the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative with the shared goal of improved health and social well-being in developing areas of the world. 

Earlier last month, the Gates Foundation gave seed funding for the creation of a Sanitation Technology Cluster, which will specifically design techniques toward improving water, sanitation and hygiene.

Brian Stoner, adjunct professor of electrical and computer engineering and senior fellow in Discovery-Science-Technology at RTI International, called attention to the need for greater research and development in sanitation and clean water initiatives. 

Glass explained that he and his team are currently working on phase three of the Reinvent the Toilet Project, which has worked to build new-age toilets that don’t require electricity or sewage. He added that these toilets are currently being tested in India and South Africa, where rural communities often lack the resources needed for sewage systems. 

Smaller projects that the new funding could support include odor control associated with sewage and reduction in energy used to run sewage and sanitation systems. 

Glass added that Duke's projects in water and sanitation research also look to empower women in developing communities, many of whom face stigmas over using proper sanitation in their home countries. 

“Many of the women’s groups are going to be the drivers for this technology,” he said.

Sophomore Rachael Lau—who said she was inspired by her Writing 101 class, Waste Matters—is pursuing research with Glass and other team members.

“My focus was on Senegal, and there I focused on toilet solutions and how we can implement them to work on a broad range of social inquiry,” she said. 

Beyond health measures, both Glass and Lau said that improved sanitation could also have a societal impact. Lau noted that implementing newer toilets could spur economic and agricultural growth in affected regions. 

“The implications are just unreal,” Glass aid. “The connections with improved health go way beyond hospital visits, to economic benefit and education outcomes.”