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Bill Gates calls for reinvention of toilet: Why?

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Bill Gates at a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho on July 7, 2011. Getty Images

(CBS) Bill Gates may have given up running Microsoft, but he isn't taking his retirement sitting down. The software-entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist's charitable foundation has launched a new initiative aimed at improving the health of the billions of people who have no safe, sanitary way to get rid of their waste.

That's right, Bill Gates wants to reinvent the toilet.

"No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet," Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's global development program, said in an address at a conference in Kigali, Rwanda, according to a written statement released by the foundation. "But it did not go far enough. It only reached one-third of the world. What we need are new approaches."

Forty percent of the world's population lacks access to flush toilets, and more than a billion people defecate into the open, according to the statement. That's not only revolting but also tragic. UNICEF estimates that at least 1.2 million children under age five die of diarrhea each year, and contact with human feces is the main cause, Time reported.

Access to toilets could go a long way to preventing these deaths, the statement said.

In addition to preventing diarrhea, better access to toilets could boost school and work attendance of girls and women, who risk embarrassment and sexual assault when they are forced to defecate in the open or use public restrooms.

To jump-start the effort, the foundation is ponying up $42 million in grants aimed at spurring innovation in the "capture and storage of waste." It will also work with local communities to end open defecation and boost access to "sanitation solutions."

What sorts of solutions are envisioned? The foundation is working to develop waterless toilets that do not rely on sewer connections - and which might turn human waste into fuel to fertilizer, fuel, or even safe drinking water.

In one project the foundation is funding, a team from Stanford University is looking to build a system in Nairobi that would turn human waste into charcoal, the Seattle Times reported. And a Swiss team is working on a toilet that would turn urine into water used for cleaning.

The World Toilet Organization has more on toilets, sanitation, and health.

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