RTI International develops new ‘off-grid’ toilet for forward-operating military bases

Mobile, low-maintenance, self-sustaining technology reduces time, energy and personnel needed to support operations


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC – RTI International is working with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center to develop a mobile, low-maintenance, self-sustaining, off-grid, toilet system to serve military personnel stationed at forward-operating bases. The system is the first of its kind to be developed that contains no biologics or bacteria and thus can safely be transported across countries.

Forward-operating bases are temporary bases established to support tactical military operations often without running water or electricity. More than sixty percent of all U.S. military injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan were personnel supporting base operations, which included removing human waste. Currently, human waste is either trucked out of temporary bases, which is dangerous to the lives of those transporting the waste, or the waste is burned on-site, which is damaging to the environment.

“With this new technology, not only can we help the military save money by reducing the amount of time, energy and personnel needed to support our forward operating bases,” said Jeff Piascik, Ph.D., senior research scientist at RTI and the project’s director, “We can also reduce the risk to logistics personnel who often operate in harm’s way.”

Coined the TOWR system, Toilet with On-site Waste Remediation, the new technology is designed to disinfect human liquid waste to the point of sterilization and combust the solid human waste in a specially designed biomass combustion system.  The only outputs from the system are ash (from total combustion of solid materials) and non-potable (sterilized) liquid that can be recycled for flushing or discharged safely into the environment.  This system has been designed to use minimal energy, and by leveraging alternative energy sources, such as solar energy, has the potential to be completely off-grid.

TOWR is a mobile design that can be deployed to the base location and become functional within hours. Each unit will support from about 10 to 50 people (with the goal to scale-up capacity) and requires minimal maintenance.

This off-grid toilet system could also be used during national disaster recovery programs, such as for hurricanes, in refugee camps, or in remote locations. It can also be used at construction sites in low-resource areas around the world where migrant workers often stay for 18 months to two years with only pit latrines. TOWR can also be used for festivals and other large civic gatherings.

The prototype builds on technology RTI began developing in 2012 in partnership with Duke University and Colorado State University as part of a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. The original technology, which operates without piped-in water, sewer or outside electricity, at less than $.05 a day, is currently being field tested in Ahmedabad and Coimbatore, India, and Durban, South Africa.