North Carolina State University engineers have created a non-toxic ship hull coating that resists the build up of barnacles.

Barnacles that colonize the hull of a ship augment the vessel’s drag which in turn increases fuel consumption. After no more than six months in salt water, the fuel consumption of a ship has normally swelled substantially, forcing the ship owner to either spend more money on fuel or to remove the ship from the water and place it in a dry dock where it can be cleaned. Both alternatives are naturally costly, and for many years ship owners fought barnacles by regularly coating ship hulls with substances toxic to barnacles. Unsurprisingly, these substances turned out to be toxic to a wide range of other marine life as well, including fish, which caused most countries to ban their use.

Ships are not the only ones colonized by barnacles. In the wild, it is common to see barnacles attached to a wide range of marine species, such as whales and sea turtles. One type of animal is however usually free of barnacles: the sharks. Unlike the smooth-skinned whales, sharks tend to have rough and uneven skin, and this might prove to be the salutation for ships as well.

barnacle Craggy hull resists barnacles; makes toxins superfluous and may save ship owners millions

The new hull coating created by Dr. Kirill Efimenko, research assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Dr. Jan Genzer, professor in the same department, contains nests of different-sized “wrinkles” which makes the surface rough and uneven, just like the skin of a shark.

The wrinkly material was tested in Wilmington, N.C and remained free of barnacles after 18 months of exposure to seawater. Flat coatings made of the same material were on the other hand colonized by barnacles within a month.

The results are very promising,” says Efimenko. We

are dealing with a very complex phenomenon. Living

organisms are very adaptable to the environment, so

we need to find their weakness. And this hierarchical

wrinkled topography seems to do the trick.”

Efimenko and Genzer created the wrinkles by stretching a rubber sheet, exposing it to ultra-violet ozone, and then relieving the tension, causing five generations of “wrinkles” to form concurrently. After that, the coating was covered in an ultra-thin layer of semifluorinated material.