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Posted: October 2, 2007
EU project delves into nanotechnologies to solve age-old problem for marine vessels
(Nanowerk News) An EU-funded project is breaking new ground in its bid to develop a coating containing nanoparticles that could deter marine micro-organisms from sticking to the hulls of sea vessels.
When organisms such as bacteria, barnacles and algae stick to the surfaces of ships it is a costly nuisance. The problem has plagued ships as far back as the Phoenician period. According to some estimates, these biofouling organisms mean that ships burn 40% more fuel at an annual cost of more than €5 million for businesses, as well as an incalculable cost to the environment.
In recent times, the problem has been tackled with anti-fouling paints containing biocides. However, some of these biocides, such as copper and organo-tin (TBT), have fallen foul of EU environmental laws, which are becoming increasingly stringent and prohibitive.
In spite of decades of research, scientists have been unable to come up with the perfect marine technological solution to the problem. Naturally some solutions have been found, but all have their own problems. The EU-funded AMBIO project is seeking to harness the great potential of nanotechnologies to develop surfaces or coatings which could reduce the impact of biofouling organisms, be environmentally benign and help to maintain European competitiveness in this industrial sector.
'Although the majority of anti-fouling coatings sold today use biocides, we are looking to the future and the thrust of the research in the AMBIO project is towards non-biocidal, environmentally benign fouling control,' explains Professor James Callow, the coordinator of the project from Birmingham University in the UK.
'The distinguishing feature of the project is that we are aiming to take full advantage of new capabilities of manipulating molecules to develop 'smart' surfaces with anti-fouling properties,' he added.
Now reaching the end of its first phase, the multidisciplinary AMBIO project, involving biologists, chemists, materials scientists, coating developers and end-users, may have broken new ground.
'A number of different design concepts incorporating principles of nanotechnology have shown to have value in deterring or reducing the adhesion of marine fouling organisms,' said Professor Callow.
One of these novel coatings incorporates carbon nanotubes: long, thin cylinders of carbon with remarkable physical and mechanical properties which could prove instrumental in the development of the new types of surface coating.
These initial breakthroughs have just been unveiled at a stakeholder meeting organised by the AMBIO consortium in Germany.
'So far the carbon nanotubes developed as part of the project are very promising as they are strongly bound into the coating matrix, which is based on silicone polymers. These nanotubes are wrapped around by the silicone backbone of the coating, and the project team has evidence that these nanotubes are not released into the water on an experimental scale,' explained Professor Callow.
In the next few months, the project will enter its second phase, where the most promising test surfaces will be selected for scale up and development as practical coatings. Next, these will be evaluated as possible prototypes through quantitative and comparative field trials.
These will be carried out by the industrial partners in the project, who are interested in finding out if the solutions are suitable for their end uses, including marine vessels, yachts, aquaculture equipment and heat exchangers.
'The AMBIO project is just one example of a project employing novel nanotechnologies to introduce change into R&D [research and development] operations relevant to a commercial business sector,' said Francis Massin, Managing Director of Nanocyl, one of the private partners in the project.
'It goes without saying that nanotechnology will change future business drastically,' he added.