It's a problem as old as sailing itself. Ever since man set out sea, barnacles have been clinging like, well, barnacles to ships, growing into bumpy masses that slows down vessels and wastes fuel. Could the solution to this age-old dilemma be a new coat of special paint? It's not as simple as it sounds.
A recent report touting the benefits of anti-barnacle paint got me wondering just how big a problem barnacles could possibly be. Turns out these tiny creatures can make a ship burn up to 40 percent more fuel. Their collective mass is small compared to the overall ship, but their little bodies have an outsized effect creating drag around the ship's otherwise smooth hull.
Biofouling is the technical name for the crusting of barnacles, mussels, and bacteria on ships. Barnacles, with their superstrong non-soluble glue, are the worst culprits. It's all an especially big problem for the Navy, whose vessels are docked and stationary for much of the year. The Navy spends an additional $500 million per year in fuel and maintenance costs thanks to biofouling. Now there are ready solutions to biofouling, but as you might expect, chemicals that kill barnacles aren't so great for the ocean, either.
In the 18th century, the British navy began sheathing their ships in copper, which made the hulls immune to both barnacles and a particular hazard to wooden ships of the era, shipworms. Underwater, a toxic film forms on the copper, keeping away any marine life. "That was a radical technical advance," biochemist Ben Van Mooy told Oceanus Magazine. "It was probably one of the things that contributed to the emergence of England as a naval superpower in the 18th century." Perhaps you've heard the phrase "copper-bottomed" to describe an especially reliable thing.