Professor Chris Buckley has helped develop a new range of toilet pedestal designs in collaboration with international research groups, including several systems that separate urine from feces. Image: Supplied
Chris Buckley was a chemist who charmed billionaires, reinvented toilets, played with “uricity” and trained a new generation of sanitation engineers.
People are often concerned that money will be flushed down the toilet.
Professor Chris Buckley was more concerned with the water itself. Why do we keep contaminating and draining so much clean water? And could there be a better use for all those number one and number two?
Between building an archive of freeze-dried fecal samples, converting urine into fertilizer, and persuading billionaire philanthropists to fund his water conservation research, Buckley helped put Durban on the map by as a center of global innovation – redesigning toilets to save water, reuse human waste and reduce environmental pollution.
In 2020, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in chemical engineering boffin also collaborated with a group of English researchers on a new pilot project in a local hut to produce ‘uricity’ (i.e. say electricity produced from the biodegradation of urine). .
Buckley, 72, who died of cancer on May 27, has been involved in a wide range of local and international collaborations, including a global initiative to “reinvent the toilet,” during a career of research and development. teaching that lasted almost 50 years.
He was also the founding director of PRG, the UKZN Pollution Research Group (now known as the WASH R&D Center).
Three decades ago, when his focus shifted resolutely to sanitation, the collection and management of human urine and feces was not an issue that many academics chose to get involved in – but that was not Buckley’s approach.
“I guess our job requires special enthusiasm and a bit of cajoling, but now we are the go-to people for data in this area, as well as for testing and developing new sanitation solutions,” he said. he said in an interview. in 2020.
“About 35% of the water used in most households is flushed down the toilet – and one reason is that the first flush toilets were developed in the 1800s and their design was shaped by the need to have a four inch (outlet pipe of about 10 cm) in diameter.
This was because the earliest pipe glazing techniques were determined by the width of a glazier’s hand. As a result, these large diameter pipes led to the use of corresponding volumes of water to effectively flush the U-bend.
Such historical anachronisms can be perpetuated in design for centuries – much like the narrow gauge of several modern railroad lines, which some historians claim dates back to historic transportation tracks whose dimensions were shaped by the width of the backs of two horses pulling a Roman war chariot. .
However, through innovative modern technology and re-engineering, Buckley found it possible to redesign the toilet bases to use only 1.5L for removing excreta – compared to the 10L used in some of the old chain toilet cisterns.
During the 1990s, Buckley and his colleagues worked closely with the Municipality of eThekwini to provide basic sanitation to thousands of informal residents around Durban.
While the municipality was criticized for providing “third class” sanitation to poor communities, the city aimed to extend basic sanitation to as many people as possible on a limited budget. From an engineering perspective, it was also difficult to modernize water-based sewerage infrastructure within the narrow confines of unplanned and densely populated settlements.
But, to demonstrate the importance of practicing what he preached, Buckley installed a new “thunder box” in the back garden of his home in Westridge, Durban. This prototype toilet was designed to separate urine and faeces at the source, to reduce the volume of effluent entering municipal wastewater treatment plants and turn waste into valuable business resources.
Over the course of his career, Buckley has trained, supervised or co-supervised over 120 master’s or doctoral students (which often included lengthy after-hours beer appreciation sessions) – a remarkable achievement for a small research group which had to raise its own grants.
But the still resourceful professor, who until recently drove in a pale blue 1980s Toyota Corolla, pulled off a major blow by persuading Microsoft mogul Bill Gates to invest significant funds in several UKZN research projects.
Gates visited Durban in 2004 and Buckley and city officials spent three days guiding him through several informal settlements in Durban to showcase a variety of innovative sanitation projects.
Buckley was concerned that these three days of research work would come to naught, but he was later invited to Seattle to develop a detailed funding proposal and the PRG landed a $ 400,000 grant to advance global toilet technology. through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinventing the Toilet Challenge”. ”.
During a tour of his pollution research lab on the Howard College campus shortly before his death, Buckley invited me to ‘test out’ one of the new toilets – a porcelain urine diversion pedestal. brilliant and high-end developed by the Viennese company. EOOS Design Studio.
Nearby there was also a large red machine that looked a bit like a Victorian-era steam train without wheels. It is in fact a LaDePa (Latrine Dehydration Pasteurization) machine which was developed to heat treat faecal sludge by infrared rays and produce decontaminated fertilizer pellets.
Elsewhere in the lab, a technician was busy installing a new 3D printer that would be used to make a range of prototype toilet stands.
In a tribute published by UKZN, former academic colleagues described him as “one of those unique people who has always managed to inspire everyone with his amazing general knowledge and deep understanding of science and science. engineering”.
They also remembered a colleague who, after an intense discussion of a particular engineering problem, would quietly get up, straighten his Santa Claus beard, and then miraculously summarize everything that had been said in a perfect diagram on the whiteboard. the closest.
“His charismatic personality, radiant smile and playful sense of humor will be remembered forever.” DM
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This notice was published: 2021-06-15 19:21:54