Barnacles rusty boatThe humble barnacle may seem an unlikely villain in the war on climate change, but those little crustaceans are not as innocent as they look. Ships encrusted with barnacles experience turbulence, which can increase the fuel they use by up to 50 percent.

Swedish startup I-tech thinks it has a solution in the surprising form of a post-patent sedative called Selektrope. The company just received regulatory approval to sell the product in Korea, which is the world’s biggest shipbuilder and ship maintenance provider.

One of the startup’s founders, Lena Lindblad, was researching how to sedate barnacle larvae when she discovered that Selektrope had the opposite effect and hyperstimulated them. When embedded in the paint on a ship’s hull the chemical repels the larvae and prevents them from attaching.

Copper is the main paint ingredient currently used  for the same purpose, but it is toxic when it disperses in water. For this reason, the states of California and Washington have already banned copper-based paints. Commercial ships need to be repainted every 5 years, leisure craft once a year. One ounce of Selektrope can replace 500 ounces of copper. The compound can already be produced on a large scale. Some additional R&D is required with paint manufacturers in order to adapt their formulations to guarantee 3-5 years of performance.

“Our business model is to offer the chemical to the paint manufacturers together with a license to our regulatory approvals.” Lindblad explains. “Our revenues will come from license fees and sales of the chemical, which will be manufactured by contract manufacturers.”

How the cost compares with copper-based paint depends on price of copper, which varies, and has doubled to the past year. “The copper price is in the range of $3-6 per litre of finished paint. ” says Lindblad. “Selektrope will be able to compete with that price range per litre of finished paint.”

There are only a handful of marine paint companies globally. Asia, in particular Korea, China and Japan, represent 80 percent of the commercial shipping market, which makes I-tech’s recent approval in Korea and Japan a big boost for the company. China is expected to follow suit later this year. In Europe and the U.S, the pleasure boat market is more significant.

Regulatory approval in the U.S. may be some time off since Environmental Protection Agency approval takes up to 21 months, but “The US Navy bought a sample for evaluation. They are intensively looking for an Copper-free alternative” Linblad told me. Let the barnacle wars begin.

I-tech is based in Goteborg, Sweden, has been operating since 2005 and has 4 employees.