STILL A LONG WAY TO GO

This desert moss can teach us how to design a cleaner urinal

We need cleaner urinals.

And yes, there is a team of scientists dedicated to solving this problem—the Splash Lab form Utah State University.

To assist them in their quest, the team has been studying a magical desert moss, Syntrichia caninervis, the master of water collection.

Living in some of driest deserts in the northern hemisphere, this moss has developed a cool trick to pull water from dry air. Credit goes to the tiny (0.5-2mm-long) hair-like awns at the tip of each leaf. The awns are covered in nano- and micro-scale grooves, which are the perfect size and shape to condense water from the air. The moss’ secret weapon was the subject of a study conducted by a team of scientists from the U.S. and China.

“There are other plants that use dew and fog to survive in the desert. But this one is particularly well adapted. It can have water formed in it before the dew point is reached. This is very important because it means it’s the first place in the area where the water will form,” says Tadd Truscott, one of the researchers involved in the study, and also the principal investigator of the Splash Lab.

The lab captured the mesmerizing water-collecting process using high-speed video and an electron microscope, shown in the video above.

As they consider applications for the moss, the scientists have learned that it is also very good at fighting erosion. Because the moss would like to keep every droplet available, they create a screen (almost like black hole) that helps absorb rainfall to the greatest extent.

This has inspired the Splash Lab team, who are trying to figure out if they can adapt this feature to the design of urinal pads, to reduce splash back.

And in case you might wonder, creating cleaner urinals is not the only possible application of this discovery. The moss’ techniques could be adapted to create water cooling towers that consume less energy, for example.

Scientists say they will continue to study the plant and manufacture some “awn-like” features to see if they can reproduce similar results with man-made materials.

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