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Bill Gates thinks toilets are a serious business, and he’s betting big that a reinvention of this most essential of conveniences can save a half million lives and deliver $200bn-plus in savings.

The billionaire philanthropist, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent $200m over seven years funding sanitation research, showcased about 20 novel toilet and sludge-processing designs that eliminate harmful pathogens and convert bodily waste into clean water and fertiliser.

“The technologies you’ll see here are the most significant advances in sanitation in nearly 200 years,” Gates told the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing on Tuesday.

Holding a beaker of human excreta that, Gates said, contained as many as 200-trillion rotavirus cells, 20-billion Shigella bacteria, and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs, the Microsoft co-founder explained to a 400-strong crowd that new approaches for sterilising human waste may help end almost 500,000 infant deaths and save $233bn annually in costs linked to diarrhoea, cholera and other diseases caused by poor water, sanitation and hygiene. One approach from the California Institute of Technology that Gates said he finds “super interesting” integrates an electrochemical reactor to break down water and human waste into fertiliser and hydrogen, which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells as energy. ‘Substantial market’ Without cost-effective alternatives to sewers and waste-treatment facilities, urbanisation and population growth will add to the burden. In some cities, more than half the volume of human waste escapes into the environment untreated. Every dollar invested in sanitation yield...

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