Essex inspires £10m US probe into naval nightmare

  • Date

    Fri 17 Nov 23

Dr Nick Aldred and technician Patrycja Pajewska conducting biofilm imaging

Pioneering University of Essex research has inspired a £10m international project to defeat an ancient naval nightmare

Essex  inspires £10m US probe into naval nightmare

Dr Nick Aldred’s influential studies, using microbes to ward off barnacles, has led to a major US government investment exploring wider applications of the work.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is now looking to see if the technique can produce smooth surfaces on underwater vehicles to improve efficiency.

Known as biofouling this maritime challenge can damage hulls, cripple infrastructure and spread invasive species across the globe.

Rather than using existing highly toxic coatings, Dr Aldred’s work sees bacteria form a ‘living skin’ on the hull surface, working with nature rather than against it.

Dr Aldred, from the School of Life Sciences, said: “We are super-excited that our original work has led to such a major investment.

“This could be the beginning of a revolution towards bio-based solutions for this ancient problem.

“I always tell students that antifouling coatings are one of the only materials produced by people to intentionally pollute the environment - maybe not for much longer.”

In 2020, Dr Aldred led an international team that won the US Navy’s Global-X Challenge with their completely new approach keeping ship hulls free of barnacles.

Having seen success DARPA is now investigating whether the technique could prevent the growth of mould on stored materials, and corrosion of fuel tanks.

They are also working with Dr Aldred’s team to improve the hydrodynamics of underwater vehicles as their limited battery power means they need to more efficient.

Biofilms, or bacterial slime, grow on surfaces in the ocean causing corrosion, spreading invasive pests and, importantly, reducing the efficiency of ships through the water leading to vastly increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The new project, including Dr Aldred’s lab but led out of the US with partners in Denmark and Spain, will employ bacterial “building blocks” to form smooth, stable biofilms that reduce drag.

DARPA is providing up to $13.6 million over four years for the project.

Partnering institutions are Clemson University, Duke University, the University of Essex, the University of Copenhagen and Pompeu Fabra University.

“Clemson University is committed to leading research, driving innovation and making a positive impact across the globe,” said Clemson University President Jim Clements.

“We are excited for this team of top researchers, led by Dr Karig, to develop creative solutions for a long-standing challenge facing marine vessels.

If successful, the approach could be used across the maritime industry, but also expanded to other industries – like manufacturing, water treatment, fuel storage, and the food and drink industry.