Product developed by Wayne State professor touted to be safer for marine life

By: David Wallace, Kristyne E. Demske | Metro | Published July 28, 2021

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METRO DETROIT — After spending weeks and months in the water, the bottom of a boat can become a slimy mess, as algae and other marine organisms coat the hull.

Biofouling, the accumulation of algae, barnacles and other marine organisms on underwater surfaces like the hulls of boats and ships, can slow down vessels and increase fuel consumption by as much as 40%, at a cost of $36 billion for the global shipping industry. It costs recreational boaters more in fuel, as well, because of the drag added to the boat.

That’s why many boaters — recreational owners and commercial shippers — use a bottom paint containing an anti-foulant. More than 90% of current anti-foulants in the market rely on copper as a biocide, however. The heavy metal is designed to leach out of the paint while it is in the water, creating a toxic environment to deter wildlife from attaching to the hull, but it is also an endocrine disrupter that affects the life cycles of fish, according to Sheu-Jane Gallagher, one of the three co-founders and general manager of Repela Tech, a startup out of Wayne State University.

A new technology developed in a lab at Wayne State University is being used in an attempt to change that, however.

“Repela is all about sustainability, and what we are developing is a sustainable technology for boaters,” Gallagher said.

Zhiqiang Cao, Ph.D., a professor of chemical engineering and materials science in Wayne State University’s College of Engineering, invented the underlying technology for the product and approached Gallagher and Edward Kim, the third co-founder of the company, about promoting and marketing marine applications for the technology.

Repela has received two grants from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Technology Transfer program to bring the product, an eco-friendly boat bottom paint, to the market.

“In our bottom paint, we don’t have any toxic chemicals,” Gallagher said. “We rely on using a totally different mechanism for preventing this biofouling.”

The Repela product creates a protective barrier on the hull that absorbs the water and creates a protective barrier coat to mask the surface from the marine animals that are looking to attach to it.

“It’s like in Harry Potter, the Invisibility Cloak,” she said. “It’s a very different way to prevent biofouling.”

Repela Tech was previously awarded Phase I of the Small Business Technology Transfer grant from the National Science Foundation, which helped the team develop a prototype of their product. The newly awarded $993,788 Phase II grant will help them scale from prototype to product. According to Kim, Repela has raised more than $1.3 million in grant and angel funding.

“Our goal is, two years from now, to be in market,” Gallagher said. “One year from now, (we hope) to have our first pilot batch that we will be able to apply on real working vessels. We’re hoping to test here in the Great Lakes in fresh water and also test in salt water.”

She said the goal is for the product to be in the mid-range of prices.

“We will be just as effective as copper in repelling, but without the environmental harm,” she said.

Gallagher, of Detroit, is the only boater of the trio, sailing out of the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle. She said racing rules prohibit them from using repellant on those boats so, instead, “we’re constantly hauling it out of the water, every two weeks, to clean it off.”

She races on a larger boat with other women, as well, which currently uses a copper-based bottom paint to prevent hull fouling. When the Repela product comes to market, she said she hopes to change what they use.

“Dr. Cao, our inventor ... he’s a brilliant scientist. He’s about discovery and invention of new technology, and this marine application was one of the things that crossed his mind when he was looking at different applications,” Gallagher said. “Ed and I came on board and did some deep market research, came up with a business plan that looked like it would work.

“We got this validation from the National Science Foundation to help us get there.”