Florida Tech’s Dr. Kelli Hunsucker Keeping Water Healthy For Its Marine Occupants
By Maria Sonnenberg // October 9, 2017
earned her PhD in oceanography in 2013
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – From the hulls of ocean-going vessels to oysters attached to a private dock on the Indian River Lagoon, Dr. Kelli Hunsucker is helping to keep water healthy for its marine occupants.
Hunsucker, a research assistant professor at Florida Institute of Technology’s Center for Corrosion and Biofouling Control, has deep roots with Florida Tech.
She earned her PhD in oceanography in 2013 and her master of science degree in chemical oceanography in 2007 from the Melbourne university and is currently involved in two cutting-edge research projects under the auspices of the United States Navy.
The biological oceanographer is co-principal investigator with Dr. Geoffrey Swain on a multi-million-dollar grant from the Office of Naval Research to explore novel technologies that mitigate biofouling, the unwanted growth of plants and animals on submerged surfaces.
The Navy’s interest in the research stems from the need to curb biofouling on ships’ hulls, for it decreases speed and range while increasing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
“The most effective ship hull coatings were the biocide-based tributyltin(TBT) self-polishing co-polymers,” said Hunsucker.
“TBT coatings were developed in the 1970s and were effective and had a relatively long coating life, thus extending a ship’s time between dry dockings.”
There was only one problem, but it was a major one.
“The TBT systems were found to have severe impacts to the environment and were thus banned for use on commercial ships in September of 2008,” explained Hunsucker.
With TBT coatings no longer available, there is urgency to create an effective coating for the marine shipping industry, and Hunsucker is helping to discover the best alternative.
“Through our grant from the Navy, we test coatings’ durability and performance in real world environments,” said the Melbourne Beach resident.
“This provides valuable data to accurately represent the conditions both the hull and fouling organisms encounter while on a ship, whether it is at port or underway. In addition to the marine coatings, we also investigate other biofouling prevention methods.”
Among the unique methods Hunsucker is researching is the use of aeration or bubbles along a ship’s hull and the use of ultraviolet light.
Her research team also has a second grant from the Navy to contribute to the testing and development of an underwater robot to groom ship hulls.
“Grooming is the gentle frequent wiping of a ship hull, a similar concept to brushing your teeth daily,” said Hunsucker.
“Through our testing, we have found grooming is capable of keeping a ship hull free of macrofouling like barnacles, tubeworms and tunicates.”
While biofouling organisms are no-nos on the hulls of ships, they are welcome additions to one of the nation’s top natural resources: the Indian River Lagoon.
“Another project I am working on is related to using the biofouling organisms to help improve the Indian River Lagoon,” said Hunsucker.
“The biofouling organisms such as oysters, sponges, barnacles and tunicate, live fixed to a substrate. These organisms are filter feeders, which have the potential to significantly improve local water quality and provide habitat and food for crabs and fish.”
Working with colleague Dr. Robert Weaver, Hunsucker energizes citizen scientists to create Living Docks that promote the growth of filter feeders at private and public locations along the Indian River Lagoon.
“This is done by attaching oyster wraps to docks,” said Hunsucker.
“This method is cheap, simple and requires minor long-term maintenance.”
A single oyster, for example, can filter 50 gallons of water per day.
An average dock with 37 pilings and an average of 32 oysters per lining, can potentially filter 57,000 gallons of water per day or approximately 21 million gallons per year.
“This volume of water is the equivalent to the volume of water needed to fill 420,000 bathtubs!” said Hunsucker.
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