Professor Leterme comes to this complex task from a background in biological oceanography. She identifies a key moment in 2010 that shaped her future research direction.
“While studying the environmental impact of a desalination plant, I came to understand the extent of problems involving the treatment of seawater, and the volume of organisms and microbes it contained that were causing fouling of the equipment,” she explains. “As I began to look at more efficient systems for reducing or removing the microbes, I came to understand how important the issue of fouling was for industry – and the massive costs it can incur.”
When her desalination projects concluded in 2015, Professor Leterme turned her attention to ocean fouling, which led her to collaborate with international and local chemists who were developing anti-fouling paints for marine environments.
International freight and naval shipping that are vital for trade and defence are severely impacted through the biofouling of ship hulls, which can increase fuel consumption by 40% due to additional hull drag and poor manoeuvrability – and this, in turn, significantly increases carbon emissions.
“The attachment of marine organisms to ships’ hulls also facilitates the translocation of these species around the globe, with invasive aquatic species threatening biodiversity and causing economic and environmental damage, especially when they become established in new habitats,” says Professor Leterme.
“Our laboratory has been working on the characterisation of biofilms on ship hulls and other marine surfaces for several years. This new Centre will train the next wave of experts to work with industry and make Australia a leader in developing and commercialising sustainable maritime platforms,” says Professor Leterme.
Through this research, she has found that this is a multifaceted problem with many intersecting elements that must be considered. “It’s not just the type of substrate we’re focusing on, it’s also the water conditions which are constantly changing – the temperature, pH levels and salinity, then also identifying the organisms in the water, from bacteria to micro-algae, to build a strong understanding of the total chemical, physical and biological composition of the water.”