Antifouling - A Timeline of Toxicity

April 24, 2017

Boat owners everywhere consider antifouling to be simply the colourful coat with which we dress our vessels to keep us ferrying along with the sea critters at a safe distance, unhindered by the dragging submerged surface trotting pests. While many people will have some knowledge of how antifouling works, not so many know its origins and how it has changed throughout the years up until the current state of antifouling and foul release coatings today. 

Where it all began

Ancient boats that sailed the seas were no more resistant when left naked and un-supported by antifouling remedies than the boats people leisurely enjoy all over the world today; Fouling is unbiased and unforgiving. However, since the infant age of sail there has been some tremendous advances in defending boat surfaces against the fouling foe. 

Boats throughout the early centuries were used primarily for the transport of goods, battling it out for territory and exploring the far reaches of the globe – and as more places and seas were conquered, the varying strains of fouling were also encountered. As such, the emphasis was on gathering and maintaining as much speed as possible while preserving manoeuvrability in order to achieving optimum performance, much similar to today’s boating priorities.

As early back as 412 BC there has been evidence of sailors coating the sides of their vessels with a mixture of Chian oil, arsenic and sulphur to “glide through the blue waters without impediment” to quote the ancient Aramaic scrolls. Throughout the following centuries, boat owners from all over the world were tinkering with various anti-fouling concoctions consisting of tar, wax, pitch, tallow, lime and poisonous oils to deter the fouling species they came across.

Upon the 16th century, the major introduction of copper sheeting was used for all wooden boats as a full-bodied coat of armour, providing a toxic defence against all brave marine species including the lead villain of all submerged water surface inhabitants – barnacles. In fact, when Darwin was at sea on the HMS Beagle, circumnavigating the world in search of the origins of life, copper plates were used on the ships he sailed. Interestingly, it was Charles Darwin who spent eight years of his life classifying barnacles and his two-volume Monograph on the Cirripedia is still used today as a scientific reference point.

With the development of iron hulls came the move away from copper sheathing and the first patent for antifouling. William Beale formulated a mixture of cement, iron powder and the old favourite, copper. The 18th and 19th centuries saw various experimentations with other toxic metals and refined additives accumulating to over 300 patents across the world, all using a biocidal leaching system similar to those which are used in the antifouling paints of the modern day.

TBT’s and modern antifouling

In the 1960s, TBT’s were dominating the market to keep the blasted barnacles at bay, but before long, it was found out that these chemicals were not only detrimental to marine life but also human beings. The fish that we eat from the ocean and the residue left by toxic chemicals is as bad for us as it is our animal counterparts.

TBT’s poisoned marine ecosystems, with the knock-on effect of molluscs being eaten by other marine life and somewhere nearer the top of the chain humans began ingesting the poisons too. Unknowingly to most, for many years certain restaurants who had things like oysters, mussels and squid supplied from estuaries with intensive sailing / fishing were found to be highly contaminated by tin. So, you don’t need to be a genius or Charles Darwin to see why toxic chemicals are a big consideration in today’s world.

In about 2003, the International Maritime Organisation brought in a ban on TBT that was fully implemented by 2008. What this did was revive the previously more stagnant copper-based antifouling paints. However, while copper may not be quite as damaging as TBTs were, it has had some significant impact on marine life. In fact, Sweden has banned the use of copper antifouling from their Baltic coast and there have been many studies that are looking at the impact of antifouls using copper right now, because people are starting to become wise to it.

A search for an alternative and foul release

After the ban of TBTS’s saw sustainment of biocide ridden paints, but also the move for an initiative to invent more environmentally friendly forms of foul defence that could also be more affective. Fouling release coatings have their origin in the desire for a biocide free system and they were conceived almost simultaneously with self-polishing copolymers, which means that it has been under observation the past 30 years. Initially, foul release coating was being developed at the same time with biocide containing tributyltin (TBT) self-polishing co-polymer (SPC) antifouling coatings in the early 1970’s. These harmful boat paints worked by polishing the vessel as it moved through the water, killing off any bonding fouling species and was considered to yield very good fouling protection. As a result, the commercial benefits and relatively high efficacy meant that further research into foul release paints did not continue in earnest until the 1990’s.

An early observation of the performance for foul release coatings was its application to an aluminium catamaran on a fast ferry specially designed for high speed use (33 knots). Interestingly, after the implementation of the foul release coating compared to the previously used antifoul coating, the operating crew reported an immediate improvement in performance relating to speed, which increased by a considerable 2-3 knots in all weather conditions. This corresponded to each one hour journey being approximately 10 minutes shorter. Thus, proof that foul release did indeed make this vessel go faster. Additionally, overall fuel consumption was reduced by more than 20,000 litres / month at around a 12% decrease

Most foul release systems in use today are silicone materials based on polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). PDMS is a non-polar, or uncharged, polymer with an extremely flexible backbone and a low glass transition temperature. This technology which prevents the adhesion of fouling organisms by providing a low-friction, ultra-smooth surface on which organisms have great difficulty in latching on to.

The coatings do not inhibit the fouling settlement, On these types of coatings fouling is not prevented from settling, as in the case of traditional antifouling, but in practice the bond between the fouling organisms and the coating surface is so weak that it breaks by the weight of the organism itself or by the water pressure and current it is exposed to. They are also capable of self-cleaning when sailing at a certain speed at a certain activity, typically minimally 15 knots at minimum 75% of the time.


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