• A rendering of a material that 'wrinkles' to remove ship scum.

    Credit: Courtesy of Duke University

    A rendering of a material that 'wrinkles' to remove ship scum.

When it comes to greening, not all life forms are desirable. In marine architecture, for example, bacteria accumulate on ships' hulls over time, resulting in greater drag and increased energy use. Bactericidal paints are an option, but these toxin-laden coatings can lead to unintentional environmental damage.

A team of researchers at Duke University recently announced the development of an undulating surface that sheds unwanted organisms without chemicals. “We have developed a material that ‘wrinkles,’ or changes its surface in response to a stimulus, such as stretching or pressure or electricity,” said Xuanhe Zhao, assistant professor in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, in a press release. “This deformation can effectively detach biofilms and other organisms that have accumulated on the surface.”

Electrical-current deformation could also be applied to other technologies for which biofilms are a problem—such as water-purification equipment or medical implants. Architecture could also benefit, especially in humid regions susceptible to mold growth. Primary challenges include developing the material at industrial scale, with a resilient and efficient electricity-distribution system.

Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.