Hong Kong professor’s biofilm breakthrough could save shipping companies billions and protect marine life

He is honoured for the creation of a coating that repels barnacles, which is also good for the environment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 January, 2017, 7:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 8:26am

In a Kowloon lab looking out to the ocean, a Hong Kong professor made a discovery that he believes could save navies and shipping companies around the world billions of dollars every year, as well as protect marine ecosystems.

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology professor Qian Peiyuan was awarded the second-class honour of the State Council’s National Science Award last month for his breakthrough research into how climate change impacts the marine ecosystem and affects what life forms can grow.

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Now, Qian’s findings have been used to create a product, the first of its kind patented in China, which will protect ship hulls and other objects immersed in the ocean from barnacles. It’s a problem that costs navies and shipping companies up to 40 per cent extra in fuel costs - or US$15 billion a year, he said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Navies currently use copper or toxic “anti-fouling” solutions to stop the “serious economic cost” of barnacles on their ships, meaning they save on fuel consumption, but harm marine life.

Over about eight years of research, Qian found that biofilm - micro-organisms that can cover any surface, including hair and teeth - are affected by climate change in the ocean.

Marine species like abalone, shellfish, barnacles, oysters and mussels float in the water until they find a surface to cling to and metamorphose, where they come into contact with the biofilm.

Qian found the chemical signals from the biofilm have changed owing to the effects of climate change, impacting the way species grow.

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“Biofilm is a really hot topic, and this is frontier research in the world,” Qian said. “We found that marine biofilm can change rapidly with environmental conditions.”

Qian took the natural compound and used it to create a new, non-toxic anti-fouling coating, which he says is “equally effective - at least” to its toxic counterparts.

But his discovery has a second use: the compound can be used to either push marine life away, or enhance it where it is currently struggling.

“By manipulating these chemical signals, one can settle organisms like coral, abalones and shells in less polluted areas to ensure their healthy growth and save endangered species from extinction, putting the tipping marine ecosystem back to balance,” Qian said.