Press release | 7.5.2019
Munich, 7 May 2019 – The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that Dutch materials scientist Rik Breur has been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2019 for developing 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.
Breur has been named as one of three finalists in the "SMEs" category for his adhesive film, which is currently being commercialised through his own company. His invention prevents biofouling without the use of harmful chemicals, which wash into our waters. It saves owners of ships and static marine structures from having to carry out costly cleaning procedures to remove the marine organisms that attach themselves to their offshore windparks, oil rigs and vessels, and also improves fuel efficiency in ships.
"Rik Breur has found a new solution to an old problem by working at the interface of material science and biology," says EPO President António Campinos, announcing the European Inventor Award 2019 finalists. "By taking inspiration from nature and applying his scientific expertise, he has come up with an invention that benefits both the maritime sector and the marine environment."
The winners of the 2019 edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Vienna on 20 June.
The problem of biofouling presents the owners of maritime vessels or structures with an ultimatum: either they prevent the growth of marine life by using toxic antifouling paint, which can have a significantly negative effect on the environment, or they ignore it and allow marine life to build up. However, the drag caused by this latter option can increase the fuel consumption of ships by between 10% and 40%, costing the shipping industry an additional EUR 20 billion annually. Biofouling can also cause damage to static structures such as windfarms and oil rigs, resulting in expensive cleaning operations.
This is precisely the problem which Dutch inventor Rik Breur was determined to solve. He recognised that the environmental implications of biofouling were unsustainable and that a green solution was needed. Breur began his professional career at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) in 1996. After earning a PhD in corrosion and biofouling from the Delft University of Technology in 2001, he started his own research company, Material Innovation Centre, in 2002 to pursue innovation in this area.
The inspiration for Breur's invention came from his long-time interest in biology, specifically how nature prevents unwanted growth and repels organisms by presenting a hostile environment. As both an academic and senior researcher, and an avid diver, he spent much of his time examining the spiny surfaces found on creatures such as sea urchins. Inspired by the way they protect themselves, the Dutch materials scientist mimicked their defence mechanisms by developing a wrap of stiff, spiny microfibres. The constant movement of the prickly nylon spikes created an unattractive surface for algae, mussels, barnacles and other marine life, therefore keeping the surface free from biofouling. Breur found that the wrap was effective when vessels are both moving and when they're moored, meaning that it can be applied to both ships as well as static objects such as oil rigs and offshore wind turbines. His first commercial antifouling product, developed for treating static fish farm nets, was launched in 2006.
With the idea in place, Breur realised that the wrap concept could have a much broader application than just fish farms. Over the past decade, he has focused on transposing his technology from static structures to moving ships. Not only was this due to the huge demand for antifouling applications in shipping, but also as a result of Breur's drive to reduce the environmental impact of paint-based antifouling products.
Antifouling paints often contain chemicals and heavy metals that can be harmful to marine life. One of these is copper, which is 10 to 100 times more lethal to fish and crustaceans than it is for mammals. Studies suggest that up to one-fifth of all copper emissions into our waters may come from antifouling paints. Breur's technology means that the owners of marine vessels, fish farms and other maritime structures no longer need to choose between using toxic antifouling paints and ignoring the problem - instead, an effective, environmentally-kind solution is available.
Breur's patented material, which consists of nylon fibres, polyester self-adhesive film and a two-component water-based adhesive, is supplied in rolls like carpeting. Marketed as Finsulate Antifouling, the self-adhesive wrap is affixed on to the vessel's hull, a process that can be completed by any shipyard, wrapping or painting company. Due to the perpendicular fibres, it doesn't matter which way round the film is applied. The fibres are closely packed together so that nothing can attach itself in between. Importantly, the coating does not slow down the ships, thanks to careful work on the hydrodynamics, and has a maintenance-free lifespan of five years.
It took several years of development to find the optimal length, flexibility and density of fibres. Breur filed a European patent application in 2006 for a biofouling surface featuring stiff fibres between 3mm and 4mm long, and a second international patent application in 2017 for a further improvement to his invention, namely softer bristles to prevent pollution from settling in between them, and improved hydrodynamics. The Dutch inventor underlines that the patents have been crucial in helping him to commercialise his invention and raise funding: "They have given me credibility in the market and helped me to get investors on board. This would not have been possible without patent protection."
The marine coatings market is forecast to grow from EUR 2.89 billion in 2017 to EUR 3.44 billion by 2022. An important reason for this growth is the projected increase in overall international trade, in particular shipping. Sea cargo continues to handle the bulk of international trade and is an industry that relies on size and efficiency, meaning that the need for anti-fouling solutions such as Finsulate will only grow. At present, Breur runs a one-man operation and outsources almost every aspect of the business. While his company has already equipped large ships, the inventor's current focus is on the pleasure craft and yachting sector, which is largest in Europe and North America.
Breur's goal is not necessarily to build a big company but rather to find a strategic partner with logistics and distribution already in place. He says that he wants to stay focused on what he is good at, which is developing his invention. In March 2018, Finsulate was named Product of the Year 2018 at the Amsterdam HISWA boat show. "I really enjoy the fact that a solution to a problem in society can be found through creativity. And that's my biggest motivation. And over years of evolution, nature has already solved all kinds of things that we humans can learn from."
The European Inventor Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, it honours individual inventors and teams of inventors whose pioneering inventions provide answers to some of the biggest challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury consisting of international authorities from the fields of business, politics, science, academia and research who examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social development, economic prosperity and job creation in Europe. The Award is conferred in five categories at a ceremony that will this year take place in Vienna on 20 June. In addition, the public selects the winner of the Popular Prize from among the 15 finalists by online voting on the EPO website in the run-up to the ceremony. Voting is open until 16 June 2019.
With nearly 7 000 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening cooperation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
View the patent: EP1996453
Additional information, photos and videos about the European Inventor Award 2019 can be found in the EPO Media Centre. Smart TV users can download our app "Innovation TV" and watch videos about all finalists on their TV screen. The award ceremony on 20 June 2019 will be broadcast live on Innovation TV, the EPO website and the EPO's Facebook page.
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