Dutch antifouling wrap wins European Inventor Award

The European Patent Office (EPO) honoured Dutch materials scientist Rik Breur with the European Inventor Award 2019 in the ‘SME’s’ category at a ceremony held in Vienna. Breur has developed a non-toxic wrap for marine structures and ships that prevents biofouling – the growth of marine life such as algae, barnacles and mussels on maritime structures. The presence of these organisms can damage marine platforms and increase fuel costs for vessels due to the drag caused when levels build up. His invention prevents biofouling without the use of harmful chemicals which pollute the water.

“By taking inspiration from nature and applying his scientific expertise, Rik Breur has developed a solution that benefits both the maritime sector and the marine environment,” said EPO President António Campinos. “Breur’s story also shows how protecting intellectual property rights can benefit SMEs. He patented his invention early on, giving him and his one-man company the necessary credibility from his backers to turn his innovation into a business.”

The European Inventor Award ceremony at the Wiener Stadthalle was attended by some 600 guests from the fields of intellectual property, politics, business, science and academia. The Award is presented annually by the EPO to distinguish outstanding inventors from Europe and around the world who have made an exceptional contribution to society, technological progress and economic growth. The finalists and winners in five categories (Industry, Research, SMEs, Non-EPO countries and Lifetime achievement) were selected by an independent international jury from a pool of hundreds of inventors and teams of inventors put forward for this year's Award.

Nature was the inspiration for Dutch inventor Rik Breur’s antifouling wrap. His invention is an environmentally friendly alternative to toxic paint prevents the growth of algae, barnacles and mussels on boat hulls. “A lot of ocean animals don’t want other organisms to grow on them”, he says. Breur read a lot about marine biology and consulted biologists. Sponges combat fouling with poison, but that was not a method suitable for production. Breur soon found out that the solution was hairs. “Take a fur of a seal. No barnacle will grow on it.” This is because organisms that grow on surfaces need space to make a ‘footprint’.

To compare it, think of his invention as a thin carpet with an adhesive strip. Like wallpaper, rolls of the foil are glued against the hull of a vessel. Little hairs on the surface of Micanti antifouling prevent organisms like barnacles to attach themselves on the skin of a ship.

Choosing hairs to go on was the first step. But to make a product that prevented the creation of such footprints, took a lot of testing. Breur has a background as a researcher and started exploring the idea of a making a new kind of antifouling during his years at TNO, the leading independent research organisation in the Netherlands. After earning a PhD in corrosion and biofouling from the Delft University of Technology Breur started his own research to pursue innovation in this area. “It is not just a matter of making a hairy surface. It was a big puzzle to find the right length and flexibility in combination with certain density.”

Biofouling is a serious challenge for shipping. Allowing marine life to build up on boat hulls creates drag and can increase fuel consumption by between 10 per cent and 40 per cent. This costs the shipping industry an additional 20 billion euro a year. Unfortunately, the antifouling paints traditionally used are toxic and often contain heavy metals such as copper that can be harmful to marine life.

Breur’s patented material is free from polluting chemicals and offers a greener and more efficient alternative. Marketed as Finsulate Antifouling, the wrap is directly affixed on to a vessel's hull. In the water, the constant swaying of the prickly nylon spikes creates an unattractive surface for algae, mussels, barnacles and other marine life, therefore keeping the surface free from biofouling. The microfibres are also rigorously tested to ensure that they don’t fall off the boat’s hull as microplastic pollution. As the wrap is effective both when vessels are moving and moored, it can be applied both to ships and other maritime structures such as oil rigs and offshore wind turbines.

His current focus is on supplying his invention to the pleasure craft and yachting sector, in part because he believes individuals are becoming much more environmentally responsible.