By Joey Holleman, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium
Andrew Mount knows from experience that the route from research to application often moves slowly. Mount, an associate professor at Clemson University and director of the Okeanos Research Lab, has been studying the cellular and molecular biology of marine organisms from a materials perspective for two decades.
S.C. Sea Grant Consortium provided funding for many of his oyster studies, starting with seed money in the mid-1990s, and helped fund the Okeanos lab. That’s how his oyster shell research has led to a potential marine paint product.
Oysters use ingredients from ocean water to create their calcium-carbonate based shells. Photo: Clemson University
Mount identified the cellular process oysters use to build and repair shells, a breakthrough published in the journal Science in 2004. That process involves specialized blood cells capturing ingredients from ocean water and forming calcium carbonate crystals.
The principles of cellular adhesion, and how to stop it, led to research on the prevention of biofouling on boats and structures left in salt water for long periods. Biofouling from oysters can result in higher fuel costs to overcome the increased drag on ship hulls, and can back-up pipes in an aquaculture facility which can lead to higher maintenance and repair costs. Mount recently earned a patent for a coating that deters marine larvae from building up on underwater surfaces.
A biofouling-resistant paint could prevent aquatic creatures such as zebra mussels from attaching to gear. Photo: United States Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory
“The point is simple, good science yields fundamental insight into many applied fields,” Mount said.
A consumer product is still a ways off. Mount has applied for a grant to test a marine paint that utilizes the cellular-based biofouling process. He said such a paint would be a more environment-friendly alternative to common biofouling products made with copper components that can be toxic as the paint wears off.
Mount is working with Engineered Marine Coatings, a Charleston, S.C.-based company founded in 2010, to create the new paint. Pleasure yachts could be the first market for the product, but the possibilities are endless, said Jon Boswell, co-founder and CEO of Engineered Marine Coatings. “Just think, anything in salt water needs this,” Boswell said. “We think we could really get something going.”