Skin Cream for Ships

Barnacles and other sea creatures can encrust a ship’s hull after just a few months in the water, slashing fuel efficiency and requiring costly cleanings. In turn, shipping companies have long dreamt of finding a sure-fire way to discourage the growth. Now, a research team led by Rahul Ganguli of Teledyne Scientific & Imaging may have found the solution in an unlikely source: pilot whales’ clear complexions.

Unlike some whale species, a pilot whale’s visage is never blemished by barnacles. A few years ago, German researchers uncovered the secret behind this phenomenon: the whales’ skin repeatedly grows and sloughs off a special layer, casting hitchhikers adrift. The new ship system mimics this mechanism.

The system calls for a network of hull ducts that ooze liquid chemicals that become viscous upon contact with water. These chemicals spread through steel mesh covering a ship’s hull, forming a thin, slimy “skin.” This skin would regularly dissolve, taking barnacles and any other colonizers with it.

Ganguli says the chemicals are nontoxic (they’re already approved for use by the oil-drilling industry) and that the volume released into the ocean would be comparable to that of some existing hull paints. He believes the system, which has been partially funded by the U.S. defense department, would cut down on fuel use and corrosion, lengthening ships’ lifespans and requiring less-frequent maintenance stops.

While the research is in its infancy, lab tests on small pieces of metal have demonstrated a proof of concept.  Now it’s a matter of scaling up so ships can boast the same flawless skin as pilot whales. ❧
—Rebecca Kessler

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