Ever since humans first set sail thousands of years ago, seafarers have been all too familiar with the struggle between a ship and the mussels, barnacles and algae that attach to it while docked in port.
Known as biofouling, the growth of organisms on the hulls of ships is a problem that persists today, leading to several issues that affect marine ecosystems around the world and the global shipping industry.
Marciel Gaier was a PhD candidate in engineering at Dalhousie University when he received OFI seed funding in March 2018. His plan was to use the funding to apply his knowledge of materials science in the design of a sustainable marine coating that would put an end to the age-old biofouling problem — without using toxic substances to do so.
Two years later and Gaier is now the Chief Technical Officer of Graphite Innovation and Technologies (GIT), a start-up he co-founded to patent the innovative foul release marine coating product and bring it to market. With the support of OFI's seed fund, Gaier was able to conduct the basic science needed to continue on his path to commercialization.
"OFI was the piece that funded the basic research. The research generated data, and the data allowed us to develop the technology," says Gaier. "We're expecting to commercially launch this coating by the end of next year."
One of the biggest issues that biofouling presents for the shipping industry comes down to slower vessel speeds and decreased maneuverability. A clean hull displaces water efficiently, but a hull riddled with marine growth deteriorates over time and changes the hydrodynamics involved in smooth sailing. In turn, the ship can't move as fast, works harder, and uses more fuel to compensate.
On the ecological side of things, another issue arises when marine organisms from a port in Southeast Asia hitch a ride on the hull of a ship and find a new home off the coast of Spain; invasive species are well-recognized as major threats to ocean health.
Over the years, various materials have been used in marine coatings to protect ships from biofouling. One of the earliest innovations in modern history dates back to the mid-1700s when shipbuilders began nailing sheets of copper to hulls. Copper compounds would leach into water, poisoning marine organisms and preventing their attachment. Copper is still used in marine coating products on the market today, but to say these products are sustainable is arguable when the environmental toll is considered.
"There are issues with that treatment because you have copper accumulating in the water and on marine life over time," explains Gaier. "You have this copper sedimentation in the bottom of the ocean because copper is heavy. That's super toxic to the environment."
That's why GIT developed their hard foul release marine coating, XGIT™Fuel, which was designed to address environmental and economic concerns surrounding biofouling as well as shipping emissions.
"What we're working on makes the surface [of the hull] super slippery. Marine life will still attach to the surface, but once the ship starts moving, the organisms slip away," says Gaier, adding that this also prevents the organisms from travelling with the ship into new, foreign ecosystems. "That's what we call a passive way to deal with the issue because you're not actively killing them."
Plus, a slippery hull reduces the amount of friction between the ship and water, helping the ship to move faster and burn less fuel. Gaier's team has also worked to make sure the coating is strong enough to last longer than other products, which can cut down industry expenses when it comes to ship maintenance. Another benefit comes in the form of flexible application — this marine coating can be applied in whichever manner the shipowner used before in previous maintenance updates to the ship's bottom.
This new clean technology is so promising that it has since gained the attention of many, including Transport Canada (TC).
Early in August, TC awarded GIT with a contract to work on a project valued at $2.4 million to investigate the use of GIT's patented technology as a way to reduce underwater radiated noise when applied to the ship's propeller, in addition to its ability to improve greenhouse gas emissions from marine vessels. Project collaborators include Lloyd's Register and fishing boat operators.
"This project with Transport Canada will be a key driver in revolutionizing Canada's position as a green leader in the marine space and will help to reshape the global industry, including priority vessel classes such as ferries, tugs, fishing and whale watching," says Marciel Gaier. "XGIT™ is a green alternative to traditional marine coatings that haven't been developed with sustainability at their core."