AquaMarine: Fouling in general - part 3

December 12, 2016

AquaMarine: Fouling in general - part 3:

In parts one and two of our four-part series we covered an introduction to fouling and the current options to combat fouling, now in part three we take a look at copper as an anti-fouling treatment, its pros and cons and what is the difference between hard & soft ant-foul paints.

How exactly does copper work in anti-fouling?

When coming into contact with seawater together with the presence of oxygen, the cuprous ion (Cu+) is formed acting as the main biocide for copper coatings. And therefore, opposing popular belief, it is this ion that is the main fouling detergent, not copper oxide or the copper itself.

In effect, as copper can be very easily absorbed by organic matter, the ions can progressively overwhelm the natural biological processes of marine organisms and when ingested in large enough quantities, becomes harmfully toxic.

If a relatively concentrated layer of copper ions is surrounding a boat to act as a shielding barrier against the oncoming onslaught of marine life, this is usually sufficient to keep heavy forms of macro-fouling at bay.

What’s the problem with copper based anti-foul coatings?

Annoyingly, a thick layer of healthy barnacles can happily plant themselves on even the smallest area of unpainted hull. And consequently, with copper coatings over time the cupric ions will dissociate and become more dilute meaning that fouling can wriggle its way onto boat surfaces.

The harmful nature of copper treatments due to their biocides means that there has been a proposal to ban them altogether. Benthic animals have been shown to suffer in particular from copper poisoning, experiencing reduced respiration rates and impaired growth in mussels, clams and other shellfish. Although copper will probably not suffer the same fate as TBT based anti-fouls, Holland has attempted to do so in the past and there are current restrictions for its use in Sweden.

However, copper isn’t the complete fiend that TBT is considered to be. The initial thick layer of copper applied to boats that begins to dilute readily dissociates into some less harmful copper complexes (as compared to the cuprous ion) that form part of marine organism’s natural diet.

Another issue concerning copper based treatments is there use on propellers. The copper and copper oxide can lead to corrosion of aluminium alloys by promoting electrolytic fission.

Semi-permanent coatings?

Semi-permanent coatings are a slightly different variation of copper based treatment. This method relies upon a more solid, longer lasting approach whilst still operating in a similar way.

In this case, pure copper (or a copper zinc alloy) is used and set in a sturdy epoxy resin mix. Similarly, to the copper based anti-foul treatment, when the copper element is exposed to sea water and oxidation occurs, biocidal cuprous ions are leached out to interact with fouling species.

But in contrast, this method has the attractive benefit that it endures a much slower process of dissociation from the boat surface compared to the eroding anti-foul paints. Although this means that semi-permanent coatings have the ability to last much longer, erosion does still occur.

Because of this, the thick, hard coatings must be refreshed with light abrasion and a wash off on a yearly basis to expose a new layer of combating biocidal copper.

As well as the annual inconvenience of this revitalisation of the copper coat, semi-permanent coatings are considerably more expensive than standard anti-foul paints and seem to be hit and miss with many boat owners.

The difficulty of application for this method is also particularly unattractive and lends its self to the inconsistency of its success. The process requires a complete clean slate on your boat surface, usually achieved by a rigorous blast off of any old anti-fouling. Oh, and its only available in one colour… brown.

Hard and soft anti-fouling paints?

Simply, the important difference between hard and soft anti-fouling paints is their ability to resist erosion.

Soft anti-fouling paints erode more quickly, and therefore are less suitable for fast motor boats that experience greater physical abrasion of the water on the boat surface. This susceptibility to erosion is also emphasized when these speed demons are exposed to high pressure on the chine edges and planing surfaces.

As a result, the soft anti-foul paint can be easily stripped away, unveiling naked or old anti-fouled layers of the boat surface. On the other hand, hard anti-fouling paints are much more durable.

Hard anti-fouling paint provides a smoother finish and a greater resistance to erosion and so is the ideal choice of the two for fast boats, as well as offering a wider range of colours.

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