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Duke Awarded $4.5 Million to Advance Global Research Technologies in Sanitation, Public Health

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant awarded to the Center for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infectious Disease (WaSH-AID)

Researchers Brian Hawkins, Katelyn Sellgren, and James Thostenson work together at the Center for WaSH-AID housed in Duke's Chesterfield Building lab space
Researchers Brian Hawkins, Katelyn Sellgren, and James Thostenson work together at the Center for WaSH-AID housed in Duke's Chesterfield Building lab space

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke University has received a $4.5 million grant to support the management of field-testing transformative sanitation technologies to improve public health, Ravi V. Bellamkonda, Vinik Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, announced Thursday.

The Duke University Center for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infectious Disease (WaSH-AID) received the grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the management of field testing of “reinvented toilets” and other new hygienic technologies in India. The grant will enable the Center for WaSH-AID researchers, partnering with the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras and relevant Indian government stakeholders, to help colleagues test maturing sanitation technologies with actual users and communities. 

“Duke engineers are leading transformative research to provide safe sanitation solutions for both local and global communities,” Bellamkonda said. “We are grateful for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s investment in our Center for WaSH-AID to lead collaboration with experts at Duke, across the industry and around the world to address this critical societal challenge. 

“Advancing technologies for public health is particularly germane to control the spread of preventable diseases, and in this case also advance a fundamental human right -- dignity.”

Globally, an estimated 4.2 billion people lack access to safely managed sanitation. Since 2011, the Gates Foundation's “Reinvent the Toilet” initiative has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new technologies designed to provide inexpensive, off-grid, self-contained sanitation worldwide.

With multiple grants through the initiative, Duke researchers established the Center for WaSH-AID in 2017 to expand on their efforts to develop and deploy novel, sustainable technology-enabled solutions to address complex challenges to human health and the environment.

Through the Center for WaSH-AID, principal investigator Sonia Grego will work with established local partners, supporting the new India Engineering Field Testing (EFT) project, delivering effective field testing and provide rigorous, sophisticated technical evaluation of multiple sanitation technologies developed by researchers from around the world.

The project leverages Grego’s multi-year experience as the technical field testing lead of the Sanitation Technology Platform (STeP), an RTI International program aimed at accelerating business success and social impact in the global sanitation market. In her role, Grego established relationships with field engineers, researchers and institutions in Coimbatore, India. These relationships will form the foundation of ongoing collaboration as the Center for WaSH-AID launches the EFT project.

The extensive data generated by the India EFT team will help bring new technical solutions to market and lower the risks for future technology investments. The India EFT project will also grow the role of Indian personnel and expand collaboration with other Indian research organizations in field testing support.

“Field testing is a critical step in developing these new technologies since they provide us with data on the performance and robustness of prototypes under realistic use conditions,” said Grego, an associate research professor in Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. “I am thrilled for the opportunity to continue working with a fantastic team of U.S. and Indian engineers to develop these innovative technologies which hold promise to benefit the health of billions of people currently lacking improved sanitation.”

Ultimately, the vision is for the project to become a trusted expandable model in India, providing assessment of onsite sanitation technologies for both government and private clients to accelerate the wide adoption of much-needed sanitation solutions.