Tackling ocean fouling with A20’s breakthrough technology

May 17, 2022  |  

For as long as boats have been submerged in the water, fouling has been an issue. Organisms such as barnacles, bivalves, sponges, seaweeds and polychaete worms attach themselves to vessels, slowing its speed, increasing fossil fuel consumption and transporting potentially invasive species from port to port. 

“It’s really kind of remarkable how prolific ocean fouling is – which is how quickly organisms start to grow and colonize on anything that’s underwater,” said Damon Gilmour, Vice President of Research and Founder at A2O Advanced Materials Inc. (A2O). “If you put a boat hull into the ocean that isn’t coated in anything, in one season your boat is going to lose about 50 per cent of its performance. Meaning, you won’t be able to access anywhere near the top speed and to even maintain moderate speeds, you’re going to be burning way more fuel.”  

There are several antifouling techniques on the market – including pressure washing, antifoulant paints, vinyl wraps, and copper-based solutions – to deter or reduce the attachment of organisms, but many solutions, though temporarily effective, cause irreparable harm to marine ecosystems.  

It is universally understood that the continued use of anti-fouling paints will prevent a future of truly sustainable marine operations. An alternative strategy of developing ‘foul-release coatings’ that function by preventing adhesion of biofouling organisms in the first place have been pursued, but these attempts have typically suffered from poor coating durability. 

That’s where A20 is developing a very exciting solution. 

A2O is a platform company that is based on the discovery of a novel class of self-healing polymer materials at the University of British Columbia. Through a sustainable, green chemistry-inspired route to make these new materials, the company has created a new class of bonding materials that respond to the environment to produce durable and long-lasting coatings and adhesives. Remarkably, these materials demonstrate adhesion to non-stick polymers such as PTFE, or Teflon. The team hypothesized that this property could be harnessed to create a new class of non-toxic, high-performance marine coatings to improve hull efficiency.   

“The fundamental strategy of our marine coating is that it is essentially non-stick, like your frying pan in your kitchen – we prevent fouling by preventing organisms from adhering to the hull in the first place,” Gilmour said. “How that’s different from a conventional antifouling is that conventional antifoulings contain toxic agents that leach into the environment and actually poison the organisms. How we thought we were uniquely positioned to deliver non-stick coating for a hull or really any asset that’s under ocean immersion is that our self-healing polymer layer actually enables sticking non-stick layers.” 

He explained that antifouling technologies have been around for hundreds of years, but are usually based on the use of metals that are toxic to bio-organisms. With A2O, they are developing a “win-win” solution for the environment – one that is particularly attractive to cruise and shipping industries given foulings’ impact on speed, fuel consumption and manoeuvrability of vessels. 

“Antifouling, of course, will contribute to air pollution if it’s not mitigated because you’re going to be burning so much more emissions,” he said. “If consumers continue to use these antifouling paints, it’s a compromise between that air pollution and the marine system pollution because of the leaching of the biocides, as well as microplastics from conventional coatings leading to irreparable ocean harm.”

Natalie Dakers, originally trained as a marine biologist and experienced entrepreneur, joined the team last year. She said what she finds most interesting about A2O technology is that it overcomes a traditional practice that has been harmful to the marine environment, and it solves a problem in an elegant and sustainable way.” 

“Adhesives don’t typically work very well under water. This is a unique technology that’s going to work under water, and it’s not just from a fouling point of view,” Dakers said, adding, “We also think it’s going to have a real-world impact on preventing corrosion for small and large scale ocean infrastructure. We see high impact applications beyond marine and shipping vessels.”

A2O applied for the Ocean Startup Challenge in 2021 to be able to further develop, test and validate the marine applications, and was named a winner in the Growth stream – taking home $50,000 in non-dilutive funding. 

“One of the single most important opportunities that [winning] presents is connecting us to the oceans network – as a small company, it’s hard for us to cover all of the ground, particularly if you imagine west coast-east coast; Canada is a big country,” Dakers said, adding, “We’ve been introduced to some key people for us through the mentoring program; the mentors have been really helpful … and of course, in an early stage company, validation from an outside party is very important, and you can’t deny cash is king.”

Gilmour added that he’s learned it takes a village of stakeholders, influencers and champions to build a technology in the marine sector, so being immersed in the ocean startup ecosystem to develop the product has been crucial for the company’s development. 

Part of that village includes building relationships with partners to pilot their antifouling coating on vessels – an exciting prospect given the data they’ve collected over the last year as they validate the technology. 

“We first validated that the coating was non-toxic. Then, to demonstrate the antifouling, we had stationary tests where we had panels and model substrates coated with our coating and immersed in the ocean environment. Those experiments have now been going on in some cases for two years,” Gilmour said. “We used that data to show that even in a stationary environment, the coating prevents fouling.”

After sharing this data with potential customers, they found a partner to pilot their marine coating technology on a 12-foot recreational vessel – a project currently in the works. Phase two will focus on piloting the technology on additional craft types. They also plan on exploring its application in the racing scene. 

“We think this is going to be – once proven out – a really exciting opportunity because it’s going to be really challenging to find ways to reduce emissions for the large shipping industry. Renewable energy for example, just isn’t at the current capacity or technology readiness level to serve large vessels,” Gilmour said. “Hopefully it gets there soon, but even if we transition to things like battery and wind-powered vessels, antifouling technology is still incredibly relevant because you need to maintain the range of those vessels. Even as we change our powering solutions, this technology will continue to be relevant until things aren’t transported on the ocean anymore.” 

For more information about A2O Advanced Materials Inc., visit www.A2Oam.com.

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