To build a better toilet. Researchers at Penn State are making headlines for their new contribution to the idea, though it has nothing do with the design of the toilet itself. Instead, they've come up with a slippery spray that could dramatically reduce the amount of water needed for a flush, reports the BBC. The basic idea: Coat the inside of the toilet with the stuff, and solid waste will not stick to the bowl. Therefore, far less water is needed to keep the bowl clean. The researchers say the spray is more slippery than Teflon and could be especially helpful in waterless toilets used in the developing world. The spraying is a two-step process—a base layer of "nanohairs," then a coating of silicone oil, per the Guardian. Urine degrades the outer coat, which would have to be re-sprayed every 50 flushes or so.
"Poop sticking to the toilet is not only unpleasant to users, but it also presents serious health concerns," says lead researcher Tak-Sing Wong in a news release. Yes, the researchers tested it with real human waste, along with a synthetic version. There's no word on cost or when the spray might be available for commercial use, but the team is collaborating to bring it to market under the name LESS (liquid-entrenched smooth surface). A researcher at University College London not involved with the work lauds the idea, though he worries the chemicals in the spray might pose a risk to the environment as they degrade and get flushed. However, he says he's confident the problem can be resolved in future studies. (Bill Gates says safer sanitation is greatly needed in the developing world.)