New Anti-Biofouling Technology “SLIPS” into Action

Dried algae and rusty metal on a boat ramp. Photo by W.carter, via Wikimedia Commons.

Biofouling is a process that occurs when microorganisms, such as bacteria, form communities and adhere to surfaces. These communities are called biofilms, and once established, they often spread rapidly and expand onto other surfaces. Biofouling can create many problems for the environment and man-made structures as it interferes with and accelerates the degradation of infrastructure, such as plumbing and shipping. For example, marine biofouling occurs when biofilm on a ship accumulates, followed by other surface marine organisms, like algae and barnacles, causing ships to use up to forty percent more fuel. This increased fuel usage leads to water pollution and other negative effects.

Because of the rapid nature of biofouling, it is important to find solutions that can prevent initial bacterial attachment and continuous spread of the microorganisms. However, previous solutions to biofouling have generally involved the application of harmful chemicals proven dangerous to a variety of ecosystems and human health. Thus, chemists have been looking to develop anti-biofouling technologies that are eco-friendly, help conserve energy, and reduce environmental hazards. 

One way to prevent the accumulation of biofilms is by preventing the initial adhesion of microorganisms—scientists have been developing surfaces that do just this. Slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces, or SLIPSs, are composed of a silicone oil lubricant that fills nanoscopic honeycomb-like structures made of a polyester plastic. The porous surface design mimics the structure of tropical carnivorous plants, which similarly use a slippery liquid to trap prey. The textured surface of SLIPS makes the technology extremely durable because the lubricant better adheres to a porous surface than a non-porous one. In addition, SLIPSs are able to repel water, microorganisms, and other organic matter for extended periods. According to a study in 2012, over a week-long period, SLIPSs were proven to repel 96 to 99 percent of common bacterial biofilms. 

Using sustainable technology such as SLIPSs diminishes the need to apply harsh, polluting chemicals and saves money by reducing the need for maintenance. Though SLIPSs and other anti-biofouling technologies are still being developed and tested, they appear to be relatively inexpensive, easy to manufacture, durable, and widely applicable, making them a viable long-term solution.

This article was edited by Cat Kim and Griffin Kaulbach.