Sunday Science: Sharks and Green Chemistry?

When we look at nature, we see beauty and struggle, life and death. The battle for survival has been going on for hundreds of millions of years, and living things have developed all kinds of tools and techniques to survive in that time. We’ve only been on the block for a blip in geological time, and we’re playing catchup with nature in the manufacturing business.

Manufactured chemicals are present in almost all of the products we use, and many of these find their way into the environment and our bodies. Some are innocuous and break down harmlessly, but others may be toxic to living organisms and persist in the environment. On top of that, synthesising chemicals can be energy-intensive and create unwanted waste products.

The concept of ‘green’ chemistry has been developed in response to these problems. Green chemistry seeks, firstly, to minimise and prevent chemical hazards, then re-use and recycle chemicals, followed by treating them to make them less harmful and then disposing of them safely. By doing this, problems caused by industrial chemicals can be avoided or reduced throughout the production process.

An example of an application of green chemistry is in the shipping industry. Biofouling – when organisms such as barnacles and algae grow on submerged structures – can damage and degrade ships’ hulls. Not only that, but the extra drag and weight slows ships down, meaning they use more fuel and take longer to travel. Until recently, the solution to this was to apply organic tin compounds (organotins) to kill the organisms and clear the fouling.

Organotins are highly toxic, which makes them very effective! However, organotins accumulate in the environment, and ongoing research showed that the long-term impact of organotins was potentially severe, disrupting basic ocean ecosystems and causing damage to higher organisms such as otters and dolphins.

To deal with this problem, new methods to prevent biofouling are needed. One possible solution is the use of biomimicry, developed by the Office of Naval Research in the US. They studied the properties of shark skin and found that it naturally resists biofouling. If such a surface can be replicated on the hull of a ship, it can reduce biofouling without the use of toxic chemicals. The grooved, rough surface of shark skin appears to resist fouling in several ways:

“three factors appear to help prevent marine organisms from being able to adhere to (“foul”) shark skin: (1) the accelerated water flow at a shark’s surface reduces the contact time of fouling organisms, (2) the roughened nano-texture of shark skin both reduces the available surface area for adhering organisms and creates an unstable surface repellant to microbes, and (3) the dermal scales themselves perpetually realign or flex in response to changes in internal and external pressure as the shark moves through water, creating a “moving target” for fouling organisms.” – Biomimicking Sharks

Sleek, fast and anti-fouled.

While there are awards and incentives available for green chemistry research, its application is generally motivated by a sense of responsibility. Chemists recognise that their work has the potential to be damaging, to the health of humans and the environment. By applying the principles of green chemistry, they can minimise their impact while still creating useful new products and solutions for industries worldwide.

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Categories: Science | Tags: , | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Sunday Science: Sharks and Green Chemistry?

  1. very interesting!

  2. Adam

    David Robertson, on Mothincarnate’s blog you wrote the following comment
    http://mothincarnate.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/getting-passed-the-disturbing-trap/#comment-1509

    “Sorry to hear you’ve been copping personal attacks, Moth – I’ve fortunately been spared any so far, only the odd abusive blog comment here and there (I haven’t engaged as wholly as you have though!). Shrugging it off and not engaging is definitely the best way forward.”

    I can assure you that my emails to him were most certainly not “vial” and “insulting”. I simply explained to him why AGW was invalid, I provided him with peer reviewed studies, and I answered all of his points.

    In his replies he avoided all of the points I made, simply accused me of “cherrypicking papers”, used ad hominems and made nonsensical claims about skeptics being paid by big oil.

    David Robertson Moth was simply making it all up about how I was ‘vulgar and insluting’. I admit I may have been a little annoying in my last email, but that was simply because I was fed up with. But it was most certainly not “vial”.

    Do you have an email address? If you do, then I can forward you all of the emails him and me sent?

    Adam

    • You sent the same comment 13 times, under 2 pseudonyms last night and if your most recent emails were in a nice tone, I wouldn’t know as I stopped reading them after your creepy one titled “I love you” which was designed to stir up an emotional response rather than anything logical.
      You were banned from commenting because you were increasingly becoming insulting and then to persistently email, bombard my comment threads and now stalk out other readers demonstrates really disturbing qualities.
      I don’t know why you feel this is so important that you persist where most reasonable people would have just shrugged and moved on.

    • mattycoze

      @Adam; have you thought about presenting your findings/reviews about AGW here: http://www.gesa.org.au/agw.cfm

      Maybe at this conference you’ll find people who are happy to deal with a pain in the arse?

    • Adam, I’m not interested in seeing the correspondence or giving you my email address. It’s between you and him, and he is clearly tired of it; I’m busily doing my own studies on science and science communication and feel no desire to either argue about climate science or read others doing the same.

  3. Adam

    It’s still not posted. It may actually be simply because it was really long. Anyway I’ll just post it bit by bit.

    • I trashed your comments because posting a personal email exchange is neither polite, necessary or relevant to the conversation on my blog. I have no wish to mediate or engage with the argument you and Moth have been having. You clearly feel you have a strong position and are willing to argue it, but here is not the place. If I bring up topics in climate science, then feel free to take issue with them if you have something relevant to say.

  4. Adam

    Fine then…..

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