The biological world continues to inspire some of the most efficient, yet bizarre, technological innovations. Now scientists are designing ships with hulls that ooze a slippery, gelatinous slime which continually sloughs off, in an attempt to mimic the skin of pilot whales.

Long-finned pilot whales are known for their smooth, blemish-free skin. For whales, that means being free of barnacles and other marine life forms which can taint and irritate them. But how do they do it?

It turns out that the fresh-faced fins manage to stay so smooth due to a criss-cross of nanoscale canals in their skin which are too small for any barnacle larvae to attach to the skin. In addition, the canals are filled with a gel of enzymes that destroy proteins on the surface of bacteria and algae.

That gave researcher Rahul Ganguli of Teledyne Scientific an idea, reports New Scientist. He is now working on a design for ships that similarly self-clean themselves by sweating a sticky, biosafe chemical that becomes more viscous on contact with seawater. The slimy goo, secreted by pores, would fill gaps in a specially designed metal mesh on the outer layer of the hull. As it eventually sheds, it will take with it any barnacle that managed to gain a foothold.

Meanwhile, the continually replenished slime should allow the ship to slip more efficiently through the water, reducing drag and saving fuel. In fact, researchers say that fuel consumption could be cut by as much as 20 percent thanks to the green gelatinous bio-gunk.

Shipowners who employ the new technology should also be able to save remarkably on costs. Aside from saving on fuel, vessels can also avoid being brought into drydock for hull-cleaning, which currently needs to be done at least every couple of years.

The idea has already been tested on oil rigs, using two different chemicals. "We think they will be safe for marine life," says Ganguli.

Of course, safety for marine life is key to whether the technology can be utilized. For instance, anti-fouling paints based on tributyltin, which has proven toxic to marine life, are already banned in most places.

But if the chemical ooze does prove to be biosafe, then it may not be long before slimy-skinned ships are seen gliding smoothly through the seas like pilot whales.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Ships to be made with a slimy hull inspired by whale skin
Ships which exude slime from their hulls could cut fuel consumption by 20% and make it difficult for barnacles to attach.