This Plant Could Help Keep Pee Off Your Pants

Imagine: No more splashback at the urinal.
This desert moss is extremely good at absorbing moisture.
This desert moss is extremely good at absorbing moisture.
Utah State University

Drop the mop.

Scientists have figured out the inner workings of a plant that’s exceptionally good at sucking up water, and their research could be used to make bathroom urinals less disgusting.

The plant, Syntrichia caninervis, is a desert moss that grows in arid parts of the northern hemisphere. While scientists have known about the moss for years -- and marveled at its ability to draw moisture from the air -- they hadn’t figured out how it works, until now.

After studying the plant for four years, researchers from Utah State University, Brigham Young University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences discovered that S. caninervis uses highly specialized leaves, not its roots, to collect water from dew, fog, snow and rain with incredible efficiency. The findings were published in the journal Nature Plants on Monday.

What does this have to do with urinals? Well, if you've ever used one, you might be familiar with the splashback problem, which is what happens when pee bounces off the urinal and splashes onto your pants, the floor, everywhere. Absorbent pads and cakes are often placed in urinal bowls to curb splashback, but they don't always work like they should.

Urinal pads modeled on S. caninervis would be able to absorb most of the urine that hits the bowl, preventing splashback, according to Tadd Truscott, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Utah State and one of the study’s authors.

The plant's unique properties could help researchers design highly absorbent carpets and floors as well, Truscott told The Huffington Post.

Researchers at USU are designing urinal pads modeling on the moss S. caninervis.
Researchers at USU are designing urinal pads modeling on the moss S. caninervis.
Utah State University

Most desert plants rely on sprawling root systems to extract moisture from the parched earth. Not S. caninervis. The moss has unique hairs, or “awns,” on the tips of its leaves that can suck water vapor out of the atmosphere and catch rain droplets as they splash up from the earth. What’s more, S. caninervis grows in thick clumps, allowing it to absorb nearly all of the rainfall that hits it. The moss’ ability to convert scarce water into nourishment so efficiently makes it unique among desert plants.

“Using these different structures, this plant might get a drink every day, where other desert vegetation gets water maybe once a week,” Truscott said in a release.

Check out how S. caninervis uses its awns to collect water in this video:

Preventing splashback is a problem Truscott has been working on for several years. He developed a hyper-absorbent urinal pad in 2015, inspired by the desire to keep urine off his khaki pants.

“We were like, ‘Man what can we do to reduce this splashback problem? Man, our khakis have droplets on them. How do we do this?’" Truscott told the Utah newspaper Cache Valley Daily in December.

This isn’t the first time researchers have looked to nature for practical design insights. The concept of biomimicry -- in which nature provides the template for human tools -- has inspired several high-profile projects in recent years. For instance, Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train was modeled in part on the beak of the Kingfisher bird.

Stopping splashback might not seem as big of a deal as, say, making some of the fastest trains in the world. But let’s face it, a pee-free floor would still be pretty awesome.

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