MnDRIVE researchers develop a sustainable enzyme-based coating to protect vulnerable port infrastructure


 Duluth’s shipping industry is vital to the state’s economy, but its port infrastructure is under threat from biocorrosion. Researcher Mikael Elias (Assistant Professor, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics,UMN-TC), and Randall Hicks (Professor, Swenson College of Science and Engineering, UMN-Duluth).were awarded a MnDRIVE Demonstration Grant to study the use of an enzyme known to disrupt bacterial communication and inhibit biofilm formation, a key driver of biocorrosion. The enzyme is stable, fully biodegradable, and can be added to inexpensive acrylic coatings. With support from a MnDRIVE Bioremediation demonstration grant, Elias and Hicks have confirmed the long-term efficacy of the enzyme-coating in the Duluth-Superior Harbor, and have patented their results. They have partnered with Ecolab throughout the process, and are pursuing the possibility of commercial applications. 

Economic and Environmental Impact

The $60 billion global market for antifouling coatings, used to protect port infrastructure, has long been dominated by copper oxide paints. While effective, copper oxide is also a potent environmental toxin harmful to aquatic ecosystems. Its use as a paint additive was banned by the U.S. Congress 2011, but the ban has been postponed while the antifouling industry searches for suitable alternatives.

Research Results

Engineered to be stable at a wide range of temperatures, this enzyme can be mixed into inexpensive acrylic coatings and applied to virtually any submerged surface. The demonstration grant enabled the team to submerge steel blocks with a variety of coatings over a two-year period. Blocks with the enzyme-coating showed no signs of biofouling, demonstrating efficacy and its potential as a viable alternative to copper oxide coatings.

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