Submerge it and they will come. Opportunistic seaweed, barnacles, and bacterial films can quickly befoul almost any underwater surface, but researchers are now using advances in nanotechnology and materials science to design environmentally friendly underwater coatings that repel these biological stowaways.
"Sea water is a very aggressive biological system," says Gabriel Lopez, whose lab at Duke University studies the interface of marine bacterial films with submerged surfaces. While the teeming abundance of ocean life makes coral reefs and tide pools attractive tourist destinations, for ships whose hulls become covered with slime, all this life can, quite literally, be a big drag. On just one class of U.S. Navy destroyer, biological build-up is estimated to cost more than $50 million a year, mostly in extra fuel, according to a 2010 study performed by researchers from the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland. Marine biofouling can also disrupt the operation of ocean sensors, heat-exchangers that suck in water to cool mechanical systems, and other underwater equipment.
Traditionally, a ship's manufacturer could apply biocide-containing paint, designed to poison any colonizing organisms, to the underside of the hull. However, these paints often contain heavy metals or other toxic chemicals that might accumulate in the environment and unintentionally harm fish or other marine organisms. To replace toxic paints, scientists and engineers are now looking for ways to manipulate the physical properties of surface coatings to discourage biological colonization. "Our end goal is to develop greener technology," Lopez says.
Lopez and his group focus on a class of materials called stimuli-responsive surfaces. As the name implies, the materials will alter their physical or chemical properties in response to a stimulus, such as a temperature change. The coatings being tested in Lopez's lab wrinkle on the micro- or nano-
|Contact: Catherine Meyers|
American Institute of Physics