Why are creatures like barnacles considered a problem?
Dr. Lovely: When huge numbers of these organisms attach themselves to ship hulls, they increase drag, fuel costs, and corrosion and decrease maneuverability. Overall, this buildup of biological organisms-called biofouling-is a multibillion-dollar expense every year.
And current treatments aren't effective?
Dr. Schetz: The ones that successfully repel the organisms-for example, coating ship hulls with a paint that contains heavy metals-are toxic to the environment. Biology Professor Emeritus Bob McMahon and I previously found that a solution containing specific natural or synthetic chemicals prevented freshwater mussels from attaching to submerged surfaces without poisoning them or other aquatic species. This research was a catalyst for further work aimed at marine biofoulers and resulted in the Office of Naval Research awarding us a two-year, $300,000 grant to find effective and long-lasting green solutions.
What challenges are you encountering?
Dr. Lovely: It's not clear why some substances prevent sea creatures from attaching while others don't. And that's not all the synthetic molecules we are developing have to do. They also need to be durable and able to bond to a coating that can attach to both stationary and mobile metal surfaces.
How are you tackling the problem?
Dr. Timmons: We're emphasizing a technique called plasma-polymerization, where one side of the coating attaches itself to the surface while the other is free to bond with another substance.
Are ships the only thing these coatings could be used for?
Dr. Schetz: Eco-friendly antifouling technology fits into a number of efforts aimed at reducing energy costs and limiting humankind's environmental footprint. Aquatic biofoulers affect the performance of power and water treatment plants, and there's a growing interest in offshore tidal and wind energy-producing structures.