Singapore may be first to offer viable TBT alternative.
By Beth Jinks
November 29, 2001
The Shipping Times

(SINGAPORE) Singapore could be the first in the world to develop and commercialise an inexpensive, non-toxic alternative to recently banned tributyl tin compound-based anti-fouling paints, commonly known as TBTs.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed recently between US-headquartered natural bioproducts screener Poseidon Ocean Sciences and the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI) will see the two research and development (R&D) facilities collaborate and advance their discoveries.

The existing poisonous compounds included in paints used to kill barnacles and other organisms fouling the hulls of ships cannot be applied beyond 2003 and must be completely eliminated by 2008 following the recent ratification of an International Maritime Organisation (IMO) convention, passed because TBTs leach into seawater damaging sea life.

Singapore-based Poseidon Vice-President Tim Richardson told Shipping Times his company had already discovered a non-toxic anti-fouling compound suitable to replace TBTs at a comparable price, but that the MoU opened up a relationship to continue to find and perfect other alternatives in Singapore.

“Our MoU with TMSI is really to look for and find the next generation of non-toxic compounds,” he said. “It, combined with the work of Singapore’s Environmental Technology Institute R&D into ballast water treatment, shows that Singapore is taking responsibility and positive steps towards cleaning up the industry which has put it on the map. This effort will not only contribute significantly towards conservation of marine life but also create a market niche within the US$1.5 billion marine paint industry.’

Director of the TMSI Dr Chan Eng Soon told Shipping Times the R&D would largely be undertaken at the institute’s St John’s Island research facility from early next year.

“Poseidon has identified a certain possibility and tested it out to some extent. This (MoU) project will more or less push that further, and at the same time we will look for other advanced solutions,” he said.

Mr. Richardson explained that Poseidon’s NB17 compound – which naturally and effectively repels biofoulants without killing them or contaminating waters – was originally discovered in a variety of seaweed. However, extracting the non-toxic anti-fouling biocide proved prohibitively expensive, forcing Poseidon to seek an alternative source. The same compound was eventually found in a product already being manufactured for another environmentally-approved use at about the same cost as TBTs – US$25 per kg.

He added that the discovery would likely cut back the usually lengthy approval process to less than three years before NB17 could be used in paints and offered to the maritime industry – with R&D undertaken in Singapore in the meantime to improve it.

Mr. Richardson said Poseidon’s New York-based founder predicted 13 years ago that toxic biocides would ‘come under legislative pressure’ and ‘re-oriented R&D plans to look for a non-toxic alternative’.

“As it turned out, his gamble has paid off,” Mr. Richardson said, explaining that heightened pressure from environmental groups was likely to see as many as 70 per cent of the world’s toxic biocides ‘legislated out of the market within the next 10 years’.

Mr. Richardson predicted these would include copper-based anti-fouling compounds now being used by many paint companies, which he described as ‘simply replacing one heavy metal with another’.

He said existing alternatives, such as silicon-based technology, were formidably expensive, and unlikely to be embraced by commercial shipping with its narrow margins.

“Singapore has spearheaded the cleanup of the sea in other areas and also wants to be a biotechnology hub. Singapore has the political will, the scientific expertise and the enormous shipping industry and infrastructure to make this happen,” he said.

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