Most people see the name of my column, ‘Tech Talk’, and assume I talk about technology. Correct assumption. Where it starts to become more complicated is in the definition of technology. For most people the modern assumption of technology – in some part confirmed by the topics I discuss – would be that technology needs to have some component of electronics associated with it. Computers; mobile phones; electric cars; renewable power; the Internet; etc. These are all topics I have written about in recent months and all topics that involve the flow of an electric charge. With this in mind, you may well say that this column should more accurately be called ‘Electric Talk’. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t involve alliteration, I would prefer to go back to the definition of technology. It comes from two Greek words, tekhnê meaning art, skill or craft and logia meaning words. So technology can correctly be used as a term to encompass any tools or devices or even techniques that are used to help us. By that definition, stone tools could easily be classified as an early example of ‘modern technology’.

There is a reason for delving into the history of the word. My topic today does not involve the movement of electric charge but instead the movement of something much easier to see.


With many parts of Australia currently in the grip of possibly the worst drought on record, a variety of techniques are being used to reduce water usage. The toilet once was a source of a huge amount of water usage with early toilets using over twenty litres per flush. In 1980 an Australian company designed a dual flush toilet which reduced the volume to eleven and six litres per flush and a re-design in 1994 cut that back to six and three. With all those advances in toilet technology, the average household still uses up to twelve per cent of its water on toilet flushes.

But that may soon change.

Scientists at Penn State University have created an ultra-slippery toilet coating that is claimed to reduce the amount of water required to flush solids by ninety per cent. And here I was thinking that porcelain was already pretty smooth!

The two-step polymer spray takes approximately five minutes to cure and the early prototype is useful for up to five hundred flushes. The surface ends up being more slippery than the well-known non-stick substance, Teflon.

As with so many advances in technology, researchers looked to nature for inspiration. The carnivorous Pitcher plant has a rough surface that becomes lubricated when it rains so that insects slide inside to be digested. Just like the plant, the design uses two separate coatings which creates a combination of roughness and lubrication. When the first coating is sprayed on the ceramic surface it covers the surface in tiny polymer ‘hairs’ that attach to the surface. The second spray coats the microscopic hairs with lubrication.

This spray has come about as part of the ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’, a concept to bring sustainable sanitation solutions to the almost three billion people worldwide who don’t have access to safe, affordable sanitation. This challenge is backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – with Bill having made his money, of course, in a more traditional form of modern technology.

As much as I am impressed by the reduction in water usage there is an additional side-benefit. The super-smooth surface also repels bacteria which reduces odours! For some this may be reason enough.

Tell me if you think this article is pure excrement (pun intended) at

Mathew Dickerson

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