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Ideas for Life – Environment and Sustainability

Cranfield University: Nano Membrane Toilet

From solar panels in shirts and socks to ways of bringing morals into public policy making, UK universities are coming up with ingenious ideas for ways to tackle environmental issues, make the most of the resources we have and protect the world for future generations.

Here are three that made the Ideas for Life shortlist… plus a bonus from Universities Week in the form of a self-flushing, self-cleaning toilet that could save lives.

Solar panel your pants

Aside from the fact that sustainable energy is one of the major challenges facing the world today – isn’t it annoying when your phone runs out of battery and you’re nowhere near a plug socket?

The University of Bath’s physics department has made the Ideas for Life top 20 with a project that could tackle both of these issues.

Researchers there are developing new, sustainable, flexible and cheap substances to create solar cells that are so efficient that they can even produce energy on cloudy days.

Some of the materials tested are semi-transparent, so they can be fitted into windows to maximise the benefit of every ray of light passing through.

Others are ultra-light so that they can be fitted onto clothes to provide charge for portable devices such as phones.

Researchers hope their findings and inventions will be of benefit worldwide – providing sustainable, easy-to-use and easy-to-access energy at a low cost.

Ethical public policy

From global warming to the legalisation of cannabis, governments make decisions on so many issues that affect our daily lives – and about which we often have passionate personal opinions of what is right and what is wrong.

Economists at Anglia Ruskin University are working with politicians, artists and creative minds to find ways of turning those passions and emotions into a legitimate and operational part of policy.

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The team is asking whether it is possible to create a national infrastructure through which the ethical aspects of public policy can be discussed.

So far, discussions have been held in bars and theatres on subjects such as climate change.

Professional actors have presented short moral situations to an audience, who then discuss the ways of going forward.

Learning from lungs

Children at schools in London will be stirring buckets of sputum, blowing molecules of gas through a giant vacuum cleaner, and learning all about pollution as they help contribute to real scientific research.

The project by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) aims to teach children about pollution, to find out how it affects them, and to help develop ways to better protect them from it.

Pollution can damage children's lungs as they grow, worsen asthma and allergies and result in long-term problems. It’s also simply unpleasant growing up in a polluted environment.

Queen Mary University of London
Picture: QMUL

Pupils from primary age will be actively helping with this project, providing samples of cells from their lungs, urine samples and cheek swabs for DNA so that researchers can see how pollution is affecting their bodies.

Lead researcher Professor Fran Balkwill OBE and her team of medical students are working with Centre of the Cell, a science outreach centre based in the QMUL medical school.

Toilets are a serious business

Forty per cent of the world’s population – some 2.5 billion people – do not have proper sanitation facilities, putting them at risk of lethal diseases and causing terrible damage to the environment. Poor sanitation contributes to around 700,000 deaths from diarrhoea in children worldwide every year.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation set up the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, offering generous grants to projects that tackle this global demand by creating a toilet that can operate without any connections to water, electricity or sewers, and which turns human waste into clean water.

The Nano Membrane Toilet is the response from students and researchers at Cranfield University – and the concept impressed the foundation so much that it has been awarded one of the first grants.

The toilet, which can be used by up to 10 people, uses a rotating mechanism to transport waste through its pipes without needing any water.

Hollow fibre membranes in the toilet then separate water from other waste.

The water is transported as a vapour which helps purify it of dangerous substances, then cooled to droplets that are clean enough for household use (such as washing clothes).

Meanwhile, the leftover solids are lifted through the toilet with a mechanical screw and dropped into a bag, which can be taken out and replaced – but not until the solids have been coated with a nano-polymer, which is biodegradable and blocks bad smells and pathogens.

The toilet is already on tour in African countries. Find out more by visiting nanomembranetoilet.org.


If you want to study in the UK, click here to find out about courses at UK universities.

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Visit Discover, Create, Innovate for more examples of UK research.

Universities UK logoIdeas for Life were part of Universities Week run by Universities UK in partnership with Research Councils UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and universities, research centres and public bodies across the UK.