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The LESS Team – Birgitt Stogin, Tak-Sing Wong, Jing Wang and Nan Sun – with the toilet they took to the MRS iMatSci Innovators competition in Boston. The team won first place with their water-saving, highly slippery coating technology.

A team of researchers from Penn State placed first at the Materials Research Society (MRS) iMatSci Innovators competition at the MRS 2017 Fall meeting in Boston. Their technology, called “LESS,” reduces the amount of flush volume required to remove solids and residue from toilet bowls by 90 percent and could improve hygiene and save significant water resources in water-scarce environments.

LESS, or Liquid-Entrenched Smooth Surface, is a highly slippery coating that can be applied using a simple spray coating process. Developed in the Wong Laboratory for Nature Inspired Engineering in Penn State’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, LESS is based on the Ph.D. thesis work of Jing Wang.

“The technology was inspired by collaboration with Cranfield University in the United Kingdom whose researchers had received a Gates Foundation grant to create a waterless nano membrane toilet for developing countries. They were having trouble with removing residue from their surfaces and so they sought our help to find a solution,” said Wang.

The team, which included doctoral students Birgitt Boschitsch Stogin and Nan Sun in addition to Jing Wang and Tak-Sing Wong, the Wormley Family Early Career Professor in Engineering and assistant professor of mechanical engineering, put together a short video and prepared a 3-minute pitch to describe their product.

“During iMatSci we had an overwhelming response,” said Stogin. “We had a booth where we could demonstrate our technology to the judges and others who were interested, including venture capitalists. And yes, we took a toilet with us.”

In this competition there were only 19 teams selected, 2 universities and 17 companies. In addition to describing their technology, they were asked to explain what problems their technology might solve in the real world and ideas on their path to commercialization.

“Fortunately,” Stogin said, “before we had decided to participate in the MRS competition, we had been selected to attend a seven-week National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program where we learned about commercializing this technology. So, we had some business and commercialization training right before the competition.”

Her advisor, Wong, added, “From our NSF program we realized there is a big problem that could be solved by a coating like this. We have set up a pilot test, and if it is successful and everything is optimized, we have a plan to start a company.”

To add to a very successful MRS meeting, Stogin won the Graduate Student Gold Award, one of only nine students chosen out of an international field of students, and was the only winner of the Arthur Nowick Graduate Student Award that recognizes a graduate student’s potential in teaching and mentoring.

For more information about LESS, contact Prof. Tak-Sing Wong at tswong@engr.psu.edu.