Scientists at North Carolina State University appear to have found a holy grail in ship design: A non-toxic coating that keeps barnacles from latching onto ship hulls. A single ship could stand to save millions of dollars in fuel and cleaning costs.
Dr. Kirill Efimenko and Dr. Jan Genzer created the coating by stretching a rubber sheet, treating it with ultraviolet light to make it less elastic, and then relieving the tension, thus creating a complex thatch of wrinkles. That rough, uneven surface kept the sheet barnacle-free for over a year and a half—compared with just one month in a control sample. It's not dissimilar from shark's skin, whose roughness keeps them clean and sleek.
Barnacles can dramatically sap a ship's fuel efficiency in as little as six months. So engineers have been looking for anti-barnacle remedies for years. The only thing that has been effective are highly toxic coatings that can kill sea creatures, which have since been banned around the world.