Published 2018-05-24

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Breakthrough for copper-free marine paint

The Gothenburg company I-Tech, which cleverly protects boat and ship hulls from getting overgrown with barnacles, recently received its biggest order so far. Funded by Mistra in an establishment phase, in the past two decades the company has progressed from promising lab trials to a proven product for commercial shipping.

The Japanese paint manufacturer Chugoku Marine Paints (CMP) recently signed a long-term business agreement with I-Tech. This was yet another acknowledgement that the company’s product is nowadays a working alternative to the copper-based antifouling paints for boat and ship hulls that still dominate the market.

‘It’s our biggest order to date, which will amount to some million litres of boat antifouling paint. This is a confirmation of the growing interest in our product,’ says research head Dan Isaksson. As he states, the order value is well in excess of the company’s sales of SEK 18 million last year.

For several years, I-Tech has partnered with CMP, one of the world’s largest operators in marine paints. Their cooperation has included full-scale tests on ships, and in 2016 CMP launched the first two commercial antifouling hull paints containing I-Tech’s product. CMP’s order at the beginning of this year is the latest acknowledgement that I-Tech’s product is established on the market, Isaksson says.

‘CMP is the paint manufacturer that has progressed furthest in using our substance. Another major player in marine paints, Hempel, has also released a product that includes our substance and several other paint manufacturers are interested,’ he says.

Over time, algae and other marine organisms grow on ships and other underwater surfaces. This growth (‘fouling’) boosts the vessels’ water resistance, and hence fuel consumption, by as much as up to 40 per cent. Boat-hull antifouling paint is a financial issue for shipping companies, but is also becoming an important environmental and climate measure globally, not least given that shipping accounts for 90 per cent of world freight transport.

At the end of the 1990s, researchers at the University of Gothenburg worked to find new, sustainable methods to prevent barnacle fouling. For example, a sedative analgesic for dogs and cats — medetomidine — was tested. Barnacle larvae, rather than becoming sedated, proved to become overactive and unable to attach themselves to surfaces in the usual way. The researchers realised the commercial potential and, in 2000, formed the company I-Tech.

At an early stage, I-Tech was already receiving financial support from Mistra. It was provided within the framework of the Marine Paint research programme, which was in progress in 2003–2011.

‘We’ve gone from the Mistra-funded project and the initial trials in the early 2000s. Over the past ten years we’ve continued to develop the product, but we’ve also worked a lot to get our substance approved by various authorities,’ Isaksson says.

Copper-based paints still predominate: antifouling paints containing copper oxide make up 80–90 per cent of the market. An advantage of I-Tech’s product, sold under the name of ‘Selektope’, is that low concentrations of the active ingredient — about 0.1–0.2 per cent of the finished paint — are sufficient. This is in contrast to copper-based paints, of which copper oxide makes up about half. Since parts of the paint sooner or later end up in the marine environment, it is an advantage that the I-Tech product is biodegradable.

In recent years, the company has put a great deal of effort into work vis-à-vis various international authorities. There was a major breakthrough just under three years ago, when the product was approved in the EU. Admittedly, the big market is in Asia, especially in China, Japan and South Korea. However, Isaksson says, the EU approval is an important signal.

‘The EU has the most restrictive legislation in the world. If you get past that, it shows you’re serious and can meet tough quality requirements.’

Demand and production volume have risen steadily in recent years. Five years ago, annual production was tens of kilos. Today, several tonnes are produced annually, and Isaksson expects production to keep increasing. A new appointment this summer means that the company’s workforce will go from three to four full-time employees. As before, there are four part-timers.

However, the company is still in the red. Isaksson hopes that in the near future, it will not need to rely on venture capital to run operations, but also generate profits.

In parallel with continued development work with paint manufacturers, I-Tech is also trying to find new application areas for its unique substance. In theory, colonisation by marine organisms on, for example, fenders, cables and fish-farming equipment is preventable.

‘We’re conducting studies of other marine applications where the aim is to avoid growth, but they’re still at a trial stage,’ Isaksson says.

 

Text: Henrik Lundström