Biofouling, the adhesion of sea life to ships' hulls, is a serious problem for all marine vessels. The sticky stowaways significantly increase the hull's friction; the resulting drag decreases boat speed and increases fuel consumption by up to 40%. In the past, the most effective solution was to dry-dock the boat and manually remove the sea life, which is expensive and labor intensive. In addition to the financial toll of increased fuel usage and dry dock cleaning, marine fouling also contributes to the spread of invasive species.
Anti-Fouling Biocides vs. Non-Toxic Hydrogel
Many commercial anti-fouling agents are composed of toxic chemicals. The obvious drawbacks to a toxic approach are water pollution and the poisoning of non-fouling species. Additionally, anti-fouling biocides need to be replaced frequently, and do not always work well.
The US Naval Coastal Systems Station contracted Cambridge Polymer Group to develop a slow-dissolving hydrogel formulation to clean ships' hulls underwater. Applied by divers using gun applicators, the hydrogel eliminates the need for dry dock manual removal. Simple dilution of the hydrogel makes it safe for marine life, providing a non-toxic, affordable solution for boat cleaning.
Mussel Attachment Issues
But what if the fouling itself could be prevented? Recently, Harvard researchers unveiled a lubricant-infused coating which stops mussels from attaching to underwater surfaces. Mussels are some of the worst biofouling offenders; they have evolved to stick under the severest of marine conditions. As part of that adaptation, mussels secrete adhesive filaments called byssal threads. These threads are tipped with adhesive plaques which remove water molecules from the wet surface, allowing the plaques to bind to it.
The researchers' lubricant-infused polymer coating fools the mussel into sensing the hull's surface as too soft for attachment. This trick discourages the mussel from secreting its adhesive filaments, preventing attachment of the mussel's foot. Even if a mussel attempts to deploy its byssal threads, this Slippery Liquid Infused Porous Surface (SLIPS) stops the threads from binding. Co-first author Shahrouz Amini speculates the liquid overlayer of the lubricant-infused surfaces resists displacement by mussels' adhesive proteins.
The amazing adhesive ability of mussels does have positive applications. UC Santa Barbara researchers have developed stronger, more durable dental fillings using catechols, the same chemical groups used by the mussel to promote adhesion on wet surfaces (wet surfaces except for SLIPS, that is). Purdue researchers have inserted catechol into a biomimetic polymer, creating an underwater adhesive that outperforms many commercial adhesives.