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Navy Researchers Study Barnacle Components to Address Ship Maintenance Costs

Scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory have discovered 45 components of barnacle adhesive as part of efforts to address barnacle encrustation on the surface of U.S. Navy vessels.

NRL said Tuesday the encrustation of barnacles and other sea creatures costs the service branch $56 million in annual maintenance and fuel consumption costs for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

“Barnacles increase drag and fuel consumption, decrease efficiency… you’ve got to remove them somehow, whether it’s scraping a ship underwater or dry docking it,” said Christopher Spillmann, an NRL research physicist.

Spillman added NRL has yet to develop methods to address the newly discovered barnacle glue components but researchers are working toward the objective.

Kathy Wahl, a section head at NRL’s chemistry division, said surface treatments of barnacles such as tributyl tin are banned due to environmental reasons and that there are efforts to create less toxic alternatives.

Researchers examined the barnacle’s glue and ability to attach permanently on surfaces from three perspectives that include the barnacle base’s mechanics; the chemical composition of the glue; and how the barnacle’s biology contributes to its attachment process.

NRL’s study revealed that barnacles shed their skins and leave a combination of hard shell, cuticle and adhesive under their base plate which grows stronger and larger over time.

Wahl noted that researchers aim to manipulate the barnacle’s interaction with the surface rather than kill the barnacle.

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