A tiny moss that grows in the most arid regions of the world may hold the key to the most intractable problem of the men’s bathroom: splashback. (For those of you who don’t know: when men pee in urinals, some of it splashes out onto the floor. This is gross.) This serendipitous discovery was made when researchers studied a particular desert moss that uses its leaves rather than its roots to collect water droplets.
The plant is Syntrichia caninervis, a moss that’s found in dry environments in the Northern hemisphere, from Utah and California to Europe and China. For a long time, scientists have wondered how it survives with limited water supplies, but now a study published yesterday in the journal Nature Plants has the answer. The researchers found that the moss’ leaves have tiny hairs, or awns, that are between 0.02 to 0.08 inches long. These awns at the tip of each leaf can collect air from a variety of sources, from fog to heavy rain, using several specialized tools.
The awns, for example, allow water vapor to condense, collecting water droplets from the air. Most notably, S. caninervis grows in tight packs on the desert floor, creating a structure of leaves and awns that reduces splashing and absorbs the majority of rain drops, so that no water is wasted.
“Using these different structures, this plant might get a drink every day, where other desert vegetation gets water maybe once a week,” Tadd Truscott, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Utah State University, said in a statement. Truscott led the team who conducted the study.
“Using these different structures, this plant might get a drink every day.”
The research can have practical applications, Truscott says. For years, his team has looked into ways of reducing splashing in places like public restrooms, where pee splashes back from urinals onto the floor. Truscott now wants to use the the moss’ anti-splash properties to develop a new urinal pad that avoids the disgusting splashback.
Apart from solving men’s bathroom quandaries, the moss can help scientists and engineers in other fields of research, Truscott says. For example, by replicating the plant’s ability to collect water vapor, scientists could develop a way of extracting moisture from humid environments.