This Paint Could Change the World

Barnacle-deterrent to aid trade and the environment

Barnacles latching onto the hull of a ship cause it to burn as much as 40 percent more fuel.     Photo: Soren Pilman/Thinkstock/Getty

In today's networked and high-tech world, it's easy to forget the old-school method that accounts for more than 90 percent of global trade—the sea. Maritime trade remains the most cost-effective way to transport massive quantities of goods. It also provides jobs for millions of people around the world. If it ain't broke, why fix it, right?

The thing is, some pesky critters—barnacles—significantly diminish maritime trade's efficiency. They might seem like a fact of life at sea, but when loads of barnacles latch onto the hull of a ship, they cause the ship to slow down and burn as much as 40 percent more fuel. Multiply that by the vast number of sea vehicles transporting goods and we've got a serious environmental problem on our hands.

That's why the American Chemical Society (ACS), a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress, has doubled down on creating a sustainable paint to safely repel barnacles from ships. The paint, touted in a new report published in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, seems like a win-win. From an economic perspective, keeping barnacles off ships' hulls will save money normally spent on extra fuel. The deal also sounds sweet for the environment: Less fuel means less pollution, and with ships transporting fewer barnacles, nonlocal species will less frequently invade new habitats and edge out native species.

This paint isn't the first time shipping companies have employed special coatings to prevent barnacles, but it is a departure from previously harmful methods. Because old coatings hurt sea life, ACS scientists wanted a sustainable way to keep hulls clean. The researchers discovered that compounds found in the bark of Maytenus trees closely resemble the ones that bottom-dwelling ocean species use to repel barnacles. Once they incorporated the compound in paint, barnacles, algae, tube worms, and other creatures stopped latching on to ships' hulls.

No word yet on whether the ACS is working on a paint to neutralize cannibal rats at sea.

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