October 27, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Leaving behind expensive equipment and industrial laboratories, Do-It-Yourself science can do just as much to help developing nations ...

People gather water in Ada, Ghana on Friday, April 16, 2010.

Modern science is usually associated with prestigious academic institutions or industrial laboratories. And with these advanced forms of scientific research comes the requirement for prohibitively expensive and highly specialised equipment, a problem increased by the complexity of today’s specialised research.

Perhaps as a result of such restrictive complications, there has been a growing trend in DIY (Do-It-Yourself) science: a form of science which utilises easy-to-find resources and low-expense ingenuity to create home-built technologies. DIY scientists are undertaking all sorts of projects, such as spotting supernovas from their back gardens or setting up molecular biology labs in their garages.

But being cheap and easy means that DIY science is also the perfect way for developing countries to benefit from new innovations. One idea that could vastly improve the quality of life of thousands of people is a special type of toilet.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly two billion people still live without appropriate sanitation facilities. This means that bacteria and viruses from human waste can end up in the water supply, leading to diseases such as dysentery, typhoid and cholera. The WHO reports that two million people, most of whom are children, die from such diseases every year.

In the western world, we’ve managed to eradicate these deadly diseases due to modern sanitation technologies such as the flushing toilet. Although now part of our everyday lives, devices like this remain unviable for many developing countries due to the large amount of water and complex sewage systems required. This is where DIY science can help: to develop less costly and easier-to-make alternatives that are suitable for the developing world.

Marc Deschusses and David Schaad, environmental engineers from Duke University in the US, have designed a composting toilet that can be made from readily available and inexpensive materials. The concept involves a bioreactor system that will convert waste to biogas – a gas produced by the breakdown of organic material – which can then be burned to sterilise the faeces. A sealed PVC chamber receives the solid waste and, in this oxygen-free environment, anaerobic bacteria break down the waste, producing methane gas. Instead of releasing the gas into the environment, the system burns it, killing the bacteria and viruses within the waste. By harnessing the methane generated by the anaerobic bacteria, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere, the system is not only efficient but is also better for the environment, because methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“We believe the proposed system could represent a major advance in environmental and health protection for developing countries,” said Deschusses. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – an organisation which supports initiatives in education, world health and alleviating poverty – has already granted the project $100,000. Deschusses says the money will be used to test the system in the laboratory before producing a prototype to test in the field.

This is just one example of how DIY science could dramatically improve the quality of life for people in developing countries. Other innovative technologies that have evolved from DIY science include refrigerators made from clay, solar cookers and bicycle-charged mobile phone chargers.

These DIY science solutions represent an alternative solution to the standard approach of affluent nations simply donating money. Instead, these countries should share their knowledge and expertise with the developing world so that local, inexpensive resources can be used to engineer life-changing technologies.


IMAGE: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation