Focus on marine: Australia leads the way in marine coatings inspired by nature

11 April 2023

Barbara Barkhausen in Sydney and John Pagni in Helsinki report on developments and innovations within the marine coatings industry

Australia is at the forefront of developing innovative marine coatings that draw inspiration from nature. These have the potential to not only protect ships from biofouling but also reduce fuel consumption by up to 10% by mimicking the properties of streamlined natural surfaces.  

The development of nature-inspired slippery surfaces can significantly decrease the likelihood of micro-organisms, barnacles or algae attaching themselves to ships, which can slow and damage vessels.  

They also allow ships to avoid using traditional antifouling coatings containing arsenic and cyanide, which cause considerable damage to the environment when these poisons leak into the ocean.   

However, more environmentally friendly, organic biocides and silicone-based coatings are not without their drawbacks, according to Peter Sims, Director at UK-based Ecosea, a company producing protective and antifouling coatings for the shipping industry, that has by now been acquired by the US-based pipe and vessel fabricator Hallmark Industrial Supply. Mr Sims strengthened his reputation by in 2004 by developing Cuprotect, a long-term bio-fouling protection for ships, which uses the metallurgical, non-corroding properties of copper alloys. According to Mr Sims, not every coating is suitable for all vessels and although most newer products do not release harmful chemicals into the sea, some are complex to use and others require production methods that are not themselves environmentally friendly.  

So, there is no panacea but “there is an enormous amount of research conducted by or with the help of the major marine coatings companies,” noted Sims. For example, last July (2022), Flinders University, in Adelaide, Australia, unveiled a new training centre to research biofilms and develop solutions to prevent biofouling on ship hulls. The university’s ARC Training Centre for Biofilm Research and Innovation was established thanks to an Australian dollar AU$5M (US$3.4M) Industrial Transformation Research Program (1), in addition to attracting AU$7.65M (US$5.2M) from industry and key research partners (2).  

Swimming with sharks

Moreover, Sydney-based advanced manufacturing company MicroTau has developed a lightweight film by using patterned light to create microscopic structures reflecting the drag-reducing texture found on the skin of sharks. The company has spent seven years developing the film, which is made with a photolithographic technique like computer microchip manufacturing processes. The company initially designed the products for the aviation industry but has adapted the innovation to the maritime sector over the past two years. MicroTau’s Communications Manager Duncan Bell told PPCJ: “Because microstructures can increase biofouling, and biofouling increases drag, our marine product is manufactured with a non-biocidal material that is specifically intended to make the surface too slippery for marine growth to adhere to, preserving the drag-reducing capability of the microstructures.” The film, which can be applied during scheduled maintenance, is particularly recommended for bulk carriers, container ships and tankers. It has attracted finance from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), an organisation set up by the Australian government to facilitate increased flows of finance into the clean energy sector, and venture capitalist Bill Tai. According to the company, the product has the potential to save the commercial shipping industry US$14bn in fuel costs and reduce CO2 emissions by 133 million tonnes annually. The CEFC invested AU$2M (US$1.35M) as part of an AU$5.6M (US$3.8M) seed round. (3)  

However, questions regarding the film’s robustness in terms of abrasion, ease of application and maintenance remain, and Mr Sims is sceptical if the company’s promises can be upheld. MicroTau is also open about the product’s current limitations, with Mr Bell commenting that Mr Sims “has correctly identified the key barriers to commercialisation that we must tackle as a priority.” The Australian company is, therefore, currently looking to partner with manufacturers and operators of marine vessels to better understand customers’ needs and improve deployment methods.  


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Innovations around the world

Osaka, Japan-based Nippon Paint Marine has also been innovating in the anti-fouling field, launching FASTAR and FASTAR XI nanotechnology-based anti-fouling paints. The latter incorporates hydrogel delivering ultra-low friction, achieving an 8% fuel cut. Both are self-polishing and smoothing with a hydrophilic and hydrophobic nano-binder structure.  

FASTAR was launched in January 2022 and initial results suggest general acceptance by the shipping industry, with 368 ships painted as of this March (2023). 

Meanwhile, Norway-based paint and coating manufacturer Jotun has published carbon emissions figures on ships using its Hull Performance Solutions products, claiming 20% lower fouling on average compared to ships not using HPS. Jotun HPS deploys low-friction foul release silicone coatings.  

Another innovator has been Sweden-based biotech firm I-Tech, which has developed a Selektope additive, deterring barnacle larvae from attaching to a hull. “In lab tests the European acorn barnacle was repelled by animal anaesthetic medetomidine that induces hyperactivity disrupting settling,” said Catherine Austin, I-Tech’s PR Director.  

Austin added that almost all barnacles have an octopamine receptor that is affected by Selektope. Tube worms are also deterred from fixing themselves to vessels painted with products containing this additive. 

Selektope has secured European Union (EU) biocidal product regulation approval, allowing the product to be sold in all 27 EU member states. Applying the chemical as 0.1% of the coating volume delivers anti-fouling effectiveness, said I-Tech, with costs dependent on ship size, routes and activity, but I-Tech said the price is compatible with other premium coatings. 

Currently, six marine paint makers use Selektope in products. I-Tech’s business is growing rapidly, especially in Asia. It cites the Singapore-flagged tanker ‘Calypso’, which showed close to complete absence of hard fouling (4) after 63 months trading globally using CMP’s copper-free SEAFLO NEO CF Premium.  

Innovative marine coatings can save shipping companies a lot of money – hull cleaning by divers can cost US$25,000 (depending on the length of a boat), said HullWiper, a UAE-based firm that specialises in automatic cleaning without the use of expensive human divers.  

And with 90% of international trade carried by ship (OECD figures), releasing nearly 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions (over 1,000 million tonnes), anything that reduces drag and hence emissions has an additional environmental benefit: the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has committed to cut shipping emissions in half by 2050 and innovative anti-fouling coatings may help. 


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For more information, contact Keith Nuthall at International News Services:

Tel: +44 (0) 207 193 4888; Email: [email protected]

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