Bill Gates helps invent 'poop perfume' to tackle sanitation problems in developing countries

Mr Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks during a discussion on innovation hosted by Reuters in Washington.
Mr Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks during a discussion on innovation hosted by Reuters in Washington.PHOTO: REUTERS

Bill Gates has seemingly found the answer to the developing world's hygiene problems - a perfume that smells like poop.

The Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist, in a post titled "Smells of Success" on his Gate Notes blog last Wednesday (Nov 16), revealed he recently travelled to Switzerland to "take a giant whiff of pit latrine odour".

Mr Gates, 61, described the smell of the perfume as a strong kick to the nostrils which consisted of a potent combination of sewage stink, barnyard sweat and bitter ammonia.

But it is not some weird fetish of Mr Gates'. His eponymous Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has partnered with Swiss company Firmenich - which received a US$6.3 million (S$9 million) grant in 2013 - to work on global sanitation issues.

One solution is the "poop perfume", which as Mr Gates went on to explain in his blog, can block certain receptors in people's noses, making them unable to register certain malodours.

By blocking the receptors, their brains do not perceive the bad smells.

He likened the approach to noise-cancelling headphones, which are used to block out jet engine noise on flights by creating a soundwave that is out of phase with the ambient noise that needs to be blocked.

But creating it was no easy feat - Fermenich researchers had to contend with over 200 different chemical compounds arising from faeces and urine.

They managed to isolate four chemical culprits, which they then asked scientists to recreate the odour with synthetic compounds.

According to Mr Gates, the question is now whether the perfume can make a difference in communities with poor sanitation. Pilot projects are being launched across India and Africa to learn how to better distribute it - as a spray, powder or in other forms.

In his blog post, Mr Gates also described the staggering scale of the world's sanitation challenge.

It is estimated that one billion people have no access to toilets and thus defecate out in the open, while 800,000 young children die every year from conditions arising from unsafe water and sanitation.