Since boating began, sailors have been vexed by barnacles and algae that attach to ship hulls. The sea life puts a drag on movement through water.
These days in the Northeast, there’s another problem for ships and other industries that put equipment in water: quickly multiplying zebra mussels.
“They attach to any hard surface,” Sarah Whitney, of the Pennsylvania Sea Grant, says about the mussels. “Sometimes that hard surface is a pipe that’s in the water for a power plant or utility, so they can have economic impacts.”
Monitoring and controlling the mussels on a single power plant can cost $1.2 million a year, according to one estimate.
Now, a group of newly minted University of Pittsburgh Ph.Ds thinks their sustainable coating formula for paint could keep biological growth at bay -- on boats, as well as power plant intake pipes.
Noah Snyder is one of the Pitt Ph.Ds and a founder of InterPhase Materials. In the company’s office at AlphaLab Gear in East Liberty, he walks over to a fish tank that has algae in it and zebra mussels. At the bottom are paint samples on glass slides. Snyder dips his arm into the water to show off the difference.
“These mussels are super well attached,” he says of one slide. “This is the same paint. Our additives are added to it. And so the mussels, they basically slide right off.”
Many underwater paints use copper, which can kill marine life other than the mussels--so those coatings are being banned around the globe. Snyder says InterPhase’s coating ingredients are naturally occurring and sustainable.
One reason they developed a nontoxic coating is because InterPhase originally intended this technology to be used inside the human body on brain or dental implants. But they realized they didn’t have the resources to put their product through Food and Drug Administration approval.
“If you’re going to go through the FDA, you can expect millions and millions of dollars of clinical trials developing all these experiments and that’s going to take 15 years,” Snyder said. “And while that’s important to making sure things are safe, it’s not the most feasible thing for a startup.”
He said that there are still requirements the company will have to meet for the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval for its industrial marine coatings.
But, Snyder said, “There’s a much lower barrier to entry as far as that regulatory hurdle. You still have to go through the regulatory hurdle with EPA, but compared to FDA, the cost is lower.”
InterPhase has picked up funding in recent months. It won The Pitt Innovation Challenge that came with a $100,000 prize.
Snyder said the company may come back around to producing medical coatings. Meanwhile, Snyder’s fish tanks will be moving again. InterPhase has signed a lease with the University of Pittsburgh Applied Research Center in Harmar. And the marine coating could be on the market as soon as the middle of 2016.
In This Week's Tech Report Calendar:
The Steel City Codefest Challenge takes place Thursday, Dec. 3 at Google Pittsburgh. Organizations are invited to come with a challenge they’d like to find a software app to solve.