Bill Gates watches a researcher from the University of Toronto feed fake poo into a NASA-worthy, next-gen crapper. (Photo by Gates Foundation.)

The first thing that strikes you about the “Reinventing the Toilet” fair at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle this week is that the scene looks more like a wing of the Air and Space Museum than the bathroom section at your local Home Despot. Toilets here incorporate solar panels and collectors, windmills, and gizmos that look like jet engines. They generally look like something you’d get in trouble for taking a shit in.

The second thing that strikes you is that no one here is talking about taking shits. (George Carlin would no doubt be relieved.) No crap, no No. 2, no dookie: It’s all  “feces” and “urine.” Even the toilets get referred to as “user interfaces.”

We’ll forgive the gathered scientists and engineers for their lack of scatological slanguage (or just candor) given the gravity of their undertaking. The Gates Foundation has committed more than $3 million in prize and R&D money to redo the loo for the estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide who have probably never heard the term “sewer trout” because they don’t even have a sewer.

Gates gets the runs-down on the winning throne from a Cal Tech researcher. (Photo by Gates Foundation.)

Andrew Whitesell with Beaumont Design lays the problem bare. Whitesell’s company has collaborated with several other firms to create a system they call the Fecal Sludge Omni Digester (finally! a sense of humor!) that sucks up the doo-doo lagoons that fester in the crude pit latrines and septic tanks common in the developing world. Many of these are inaccessible to the vacuum trucks that could clean them out — and the trucks do a crappy job, anyway. So residents have to shovel the scheisse by hand.

“It’s dangerous work,” Whitesell says. “If they cut themselves, it’s a death sentence: There’s cholera, hepatitis, flesh-eating bacteria — just about everything you can imagine.”