20 January 2021 | Reading 5 mins.

AIRCOAT – helping ships fly

Marina Beltri Munoz
Marine Consultant - AquaBioTech Group

Marina Beltri Munoz, Marine Consultant - AquaBioTech Group

Marina Beltri Munoz is a Marine Consultant at AquaBioTech Group. She has participated in the AIRCOAT project since 2017. REVOLVE caught up with Marina to discuss how the project is contributing to marine research and to achieving the common goal defined by the European Green Deal – transitioning to a zero carbon society.

What makes the AIRCOAT project special?

What makes the AIRCOAT project particularly interesting is how it learns from nature, utilizing the biomimetic Salvinia effect, to potentially change the maritime industry towards a more sustainable approach. The Salvinia floating fern keeps a permanent air layer in its leaves, allowing it to breath underwater. This effect enables air to be trapped through a combination of a hydrophobic micro-structured surface with hydrophilic pins. The AIRCOAT project will technologically implement this effect on a self-adhesive foil system, which when applied to a ship will produce a thin permanent air layer, reducing the overall frictional resistance while acting as a physical barrier between water and the hull surface.

How is AIRCOAT contributing to marine research?

The AIRCOAT project addresses diverse crucial sources of marine environment degradation. Besides substantially reducing main engine fuel oil consumption and hence exhaust gas emission, the air barrier created by the AIRCOAT foil further inhibits the attachment of fouling and consequent invasive species translocation; the release of biocide substances (of underlying coatings) to the water; and mitigates the radiation of ship noise which has detrimental effects on marine life such as cetaceans.

The project will help understand and validate environmentally friendly initiatives within the maritime industry, hopefully paving the way for further marine research initiatives that look at reducing our footprint in the oceans.

Marina in the field photographing the samples in Malta waters. Photo: Aquabiotech Group.

Why is this project important for you?

At AquaBioTech Group, we are in charge of the biofouling experiments with the different AIRCOAT prototypes we receive from our partners. Biofouling is the accumulation of marine organisms in underwater surfaces, such as ship hulls. With the aim to demonstrate and validate the antifouling properties of the AIRCOAT prototypes, we conduct laboratory tests with diverse model fouling species, assessing their behavior towards the different samples and the air layer. We also conduct field tests, deploying the AIRCOAT samples in our offshore testing site in the Mediterranean Sea and monitoring their antifouling performance as well as air layer retention properties under real sea conditions.

I am very happy to be involved in this highly stimulating project, as it brings together many bright minds with different backgrounds for the common goal of developing a game changing technology, while acknowledging the current environmental threats and purposely building towards a more sustainable maritime industry.

What are some key challenges of AIRCOAT?

It has been a great satisfaction to see how far the project has come already, and seeing with my own eyes how the performance of the different AIRCOAT prototypes keeps getting better and better. I already consider where we are now within the project to be a big achievement, as we have proved to be a great team, working together with different expertise and bringing the project forward.

The biggest challenge I would say at this moment has been the logistical limitations COVID-19 has brought about. However, I believe the project team has stood up to the challenge with creative and resourceful solutions and alternatives to keep the project moving forward.

Explanation of Aircoat layer technology. Figure: REVOLVE.

How can biomimicry make industry more sustainable?

The AIRCOAT project will demonstrate and validate that a more sustainable approach based on biomimicry to the maritime industry is possible. Johannes Oeffner, Team Leader “Maritime Technologies and Biomimetics” at Germany’s Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services (CML) and Project Coordinator of AIRCOAT explains: “Biomimetics has driven developments in several industry sectors for many years and a number of technologies such as Velcro, self-cleaning paints or robots were inspired by biology. […] Inspired by the specific surface topology of a tropical water fern, Salvinia, a novel ship hull coating is being developed. In order to maintain its function under water, the floating Salvinia fern is equipped with a special micro and nanostructure. The surface is covered with egg beater shapes that are hydrophobic and hence repel water. Nature’s trick is to produce hydrophilic areas on the eggbeater tips that allows air to be trapped and the formation of a stable continuous layer of air under water, the so called Salvinia effect.”

What are the next key steps for AIRCOAT?

We are about to reach one of the big milestones of the project, which is applying the AIRCOAT technology on the first ever vessel. The AIRCOAT foil will be applied to AquaBioTech´s research vessel, an 11-meter vessel based in Malta, making it the first vessel to “fly on water”. Moreover, we plan to go big with a largescale application in a cargo vessel from one of the AIRCOAT partners, which will demonstrate the potentiality of the AIRCOAT foil to the shipping industry.

What else is AquaBioTech Group doing to foster sustainability?

This year AquaBioTech Group has launched an initiative called 360 Blue. 360 Blue is a national educational and awareness building initiative around the marine environment that will carry out activities targeted to all sectors of society. The objective is to be able to harbor environmentally conscientious citizens, and make Malta a paradigm for a thriving sustainable society and blue economy. Moreover, AquaBioTech Group has an ongoing collaboration with the ministry of education, hosting students and teachers to support building their capacity in the field of the blue economy, sustainability and marine science.