2012-07-05 / Front Page

Islander improves sanitation in Africa

Stephen Mecca is focusing on re-inventing the toilet
BY KEN SHANE


DR. STEPHEN MECCA DR. STEPHEN MECCA “Someone said you are what you think about everyday,” said Dr. Stephen Mecca, a Jamestown resident who has been on the faculty at Providence College since 1969. “If that’s the case, I’m a toilet.”

While Mecca began his teaching career as a nuclear physicist, in recent years he has been awarded two grants for work in his current area of interest: toilets.

Mecca grew up in New York and he first visited Rhode Island when he was a junior in high school to look at Providence College. He ended up enrolling at PC, where he stayed through graduate school. He earned a master’s degree in physics, and from there went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for his doctorate.

Following graduation, Mecca had job offers waiting from private industry, as well as universities. But he was more inclined to accept an offer of a post-doctoral fellowship, which interested him more on a scientific basis. The problem was, by then he and his wife had three children, and the fellowship route was not a lucrative one.


A handwashing device developed by Dr. Stephen Mecca. Sanitary issues in developing countries such as Ghana are terrible, according to Mecca. He is trying to improve the problem. A handwashing device developed by Dr. Stephen Mecca. Sanitary issues in developing countries such as Ghana are terrible, according to Mecca. He is trying to improve the problem. It was while he was on his way to a job interview in Boston that he stopped to visit friends in Providence. While he was there, he was offered a job in his old department. It was a compromise, but one he was happy to accept – he has been there 43 years.

“At Providence, I’m like the guest who was invited to dinner and never knew when to leave,” he said. Mecca has been a Jamestown resident for two decades.

He said that one of the major influences on his decision was his background as a nuclear physicist. He was attracted by the nuclearscience center in Narragansett, which is open to all colleges and universities for research.

Although Mecca still teaches nuclear physics and is chairman of the state Atomic Energy Commission, in recent years his interests have turned to complex problem solving and economics. It was when he was working as a visiting professor four years ago in the African country of Ghana, that he became appalled by the sanitation situation there. He decided that something had to be done.

According to Mecca, the sanitation crisis is off the scale. Diarrhea is the leading cause of death of children in the developing world. In the schools there are often no toilets – if there are, then they’re filthy, he said. Disease that results from the unclean conditions leads to absenteeism in schools. All of this adds up to a profoundly negative impact on the quality of education.

Working with a Ghanaian engineer, Mecca developed a biofill digester. Back in Providence, he developed a toilet valve that could be flushed with less than 50 cubic centimeters of water, which is less than a cup. Then he married the two technologies together to create the microflush-biofill toilet.

In Mecca’s design, waste is released into a chamber. There it encounters a dewatering filter, and micro- and macroorganisms are used to facilitate the digestion of solids. After a few years, the chamber can be opened up and pure compost will be dislodged.

Another important feature of Mecca’s design is the small sink that is built right into the stall and is connected with the toilet. It is the water that is used for hand washing that becomes the water used for the next flush of the toilet.

The most contaminated place in the traditional toilet stall is the inside of the door handle and the faucet. Mecca has solved that problem by putting the sink in the stall and using a pushbutton aerator instead of a faucet on the sink.

Mecca will ship his prototype to Seattle later this summer for a fair that the Gates Foundation is sponsoring. The professor has also applied for a grant from the Gates Foundation, which could result in as much as 10 times the amount of the first grant.

More recently, Mecca received a smaller grant from Providence College. The grant was given by the school’s Committee on Aid to Faculty Research, and the $5,852 award will be used during the upcoming academic year to field test prototype solar-water-purification systems.

Mecca says that his new toilets are working well thus far. “We’re working to perfect it,” he said. “You sit back with new technologies and wait for something to go wrong. Nothing has gone wrong with these toilets over the past year.”

One of the issues that Mecca is facing is that it is still expensive to manufacture the toilets. A unit that is good for 30 uses per day costs around $1,200. His goal is to make the toilets lighter, more transportable, and more manufacturable. Mecca thinks he can get the price down to about $500, which will make it available to even the rural poor through loan programs.

Mecca thinks that his new design for developing countries is even better than the toilets that we are currently using in the United States. Unfortunately, his system requires warm tropical climates to work effectively.

“It’s too bad we can’t use our technology at these latitudes. We need the warm climate for the digestion process.”

Mecca remains dedicated to his work. He has committed himself to helping get the project to scale. He is optimistic about the longrange prospects for the project, and he is actively working on the next generation system.

“The toilet looks so simple, but there is so much applied physics and microbiology involved,” he said. “You would think that this problem would be completely solved, but it’s not.”

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