Dr Nithi ATTHI, Researcher in Electronics and Applied Physics (Thailand)

Biofouling causes serious environmental damage and costs the global economy 150 billion USD a year. Techniques to deal with the problem have so far proved either ineffective or caused further harm to aquatic ecosystems. Dr Nithi Atthi is seeking to improve current green materials with seawater durability and biocompatible properties and developing robust microstructures on flexible material surface to produce “everything-free” antifouling surface.


Research focus: large-area flexible polymers with antifouling robust micro-structure for marine and medical applications

Biofouling describes the unwanted accumulation of biological or inorganic matter on underwater or moist surfaces. The potential consequences of biofouling are vast. Medical biofouling can cause the spread of infectious diseases and lead to 5,000 annual deaths in the US. Marine biofouling results in the ship hull drag and degradation of offshore structures and oil-rig structures. Biofouling costs the global economy 150 billion USD a year and leads to higher fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, dispersal of invasive marine species, corrosion and safety hazards.

The fouling process starts the moment the surface is immersed in water and takes place in three main stages: 1. formation of a conditioning film of proteins, 2. Microfouling and 3. Macrofouling. A marine antifouling coating known as Tributyl Tin (TBT) was used for several decades in biocide-based anti-fouling paint. However, the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems on Ships banned the substance due to its high levels of toxicity in 2008.

Nithi is researching alternative non-biocide-based technologies to prevent biofilm formation. One promising technique is the utilisation of superhydrophobic and oleophobic surfaces. Until now, this has proved ineffective against the highly persistent diatom species of microalgae. Nithi has identified the need to develop a much smaller micro-pattern (< 400 nm) that will be effective against all forms of biofouling and thus he is working on the large-area fabrication of robust 3-D microstructures on composited materials with low surface energy. The results of which will be an “everything-free” antifouling surface with superhydrophobic and oleophobic properties. Upon developing this new material, Nithi will seek partners in the micro/nano fabrication field for high-throughput and large-area patterning and also partners in the medical field in order to help build bacteria-free operating theatres. The same technology will also be applicable to antifouling on ship surface and underwater engineering structures.

The jury was impressed by Nithi’s interdisciplinary research approach, which incorporates materials science, mechanical engineering, computer science, marine science, biological science, medical science, environmental science and micro/nano patterning.