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From inefficient machinery to wasteful practices, water scarcity is a global issue perpetuated by an ever-increasing population. Innovative minds around the world, however, are playing their part to shift the tide. 

Penn State University researches from the Wong Laboratory for Nature Inspired Engineering formulated a liquid-entrenched smooth surface (LESS) toilet coating formulated from molecularly-grafted polymers that is applied in two steps, according to The Tribune-Review.

The bacteria and sludge-repellent coating helps to reduce or eliminate buildup of feces and bacteria linked to foul odors and infectious diseases in a toilet bowl without the need for manual cleaning. While six liters of water are typically required per flush with a conventional toilet, LESS allows for significantly lower rates, says Jing Wang, co-developer of LESS and doctoral graduate from Wong’s lab. 

“When it dries, the first spray grows molecules that look like little hairs, with a diameter of about 1,000,000 times thinner than a human’s,” says Wang, according to The Tribune-Review.

The second application serves as a complementary lubricant for the nanoscopic “hairs,” increasing the effectiveness of the already-smooth toilet bowl surface from the initial spray. The research team projects 500 flushes before recoating is required. 

“When we put that coating on a toilet in the lab and dump synthetic fecal matter on it, (the synthetic fecal matter) just completely slides down and nothing sticks to it (the toilet),” says Wang.

Developers believe LESS could be a pivotal solution across the United States for water conservation efforts if the application receives widespread adoption, notably in drought-prone regions.

LESS coating, Wang adds, is compatible with waterless toilets — a benefit that could elevate receptiveness to the technology in developing countries, especially when considering waterless toilets can be more susceptible to fecal matter and bacteria buildup.

Wang, along with fellow collaborators and mechanical engineering alumni Tak-Sing Wong, Birgitt Boschitsch and Nan Sun, have taken the LESS coating concept to market with their startup spotLESS Materials, specializing in surface treatments for automotive, home, outdoor studio collection and R&D markets. 

“Our goal is to bring impactful technology to the market so everyone can benefit,” says Wong. “To maximize the impact of our coating technology, we need to get it out of the lab.”

Efforts to reduce water usage from toilets is a longstanding topic of discussion in the cleaning industry. For more on the subject, check out a recent piece on maintaining waterless urinals.