TORONTO - One of the University of Toronto's top minds will have to sit and think for a while before solving this problem.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has challenged some of the world's leading universities to reinvent the toilet.

The newfangled john has to meet the needs of developing countries -- that means no running water, no sewerage system and no electricity.

It has to be self-contained so that human waste goes in and clean water, carbon dioxide, mineral ash fertilizer and energy comes out in about 24 hours.

The miracle privy must cost no more than five cents per user, per day.

Prof. Yu-Ling Cheng of the university's Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry Department will lead an international team in trying to solve the commode conundrum.

The Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering was one of only eight schools -- and the lone Canadian choice -- to be awarded almost $400,000 to tackle the toilet.

Cheng called it a "fascinating problem," pointing out that poor sanitation helps spread water-borne diseases such as dysentery and cholera.

"Those of us in the West don't give toilets much thought. But there are 2.6 billion people in the world who don't have access to safe and affordable sanitation," she said.

Over the next year, Cheng and her team will develop technical ideas, create a prototype and conduct field testing in Bangladesh to make sure the ideas are culturally appropriate.

Then they'll vie for additional funding for Phase 2.

"It is a developing world problem," said Cheng. "But, really, if we could make a toilet that didn't require water, sewerage and power, and we add a splash of First World stylishness, who wouldn't want to use it in Toronto?"

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced the grants at the AfricaSan conference in Rwanda as part of more than $40 million in new investments in its Water, Sanitation and Hygiene strategy.