Marciel Gaier is on a mission to transform the global shipping industry. Even the challenges of a worldwide pandemic haven’t stopped the entrepreneur from advancing his smart coating for ship hulls.

The system, which is the first patented technology to use nanoparticles of graphite — called graphene — to achieve a high-performance, sustainable marine coating, has earned Gaier, 29, an award from Mitacs, a national innovation organization that fosters growth by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.

In recognition of his efforts, his startup, Halifax-based Graphite Innovation  and Technologies (GIT), and Gaier — a former Mitacs PhD researcher in Advanced Materials Science at Dalhousie University, and GIT Co-founder and CTO — was presented the Mitacs Environmental Entrepreneur Award on June 10 at a virtual awards ceremony.

The coating system, developed by Gaier and GIT Co-founder Mo AlGermozi — under the direction of PhD supervisor Kevin Plucknett, Professor and Associate Dean of Research in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Dalhousie University — tackles environmental challenges facing the global shipping industry, which is responsible for transporting roughly 80 per cent of the world’s goods. On the heels of international legislation banning the use of toxic compounds in ship coatings, it provides a low-VOC, non-toxic alternative that reduces the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per journey, says Mitacs.

The company is also working on two paints: XGIT-Fuel, which reduces fuel consumption and mitigates the damaging buildup of barnacles and algae on ship hulls, and XGIT-URN, which minimizes underwater radiated noise pollution, a threat to whales and other marine species. What sets both products apart in the industry is the use of nanoparticles, which have a larger surface area at a fraction of the weight of traditional versions of raw materials, meaning it takes a very small amount to achieve an effective coating, Gaier says.

“Our goal is to solve the environmental issues facing the shipping industry, but we’re also helping to reduce overall costs at the same time,” says Gaier, noting that a ship with a heavy coating of slime can require up to 38 per cent more energy to maintain the same speed as a vessel with a clean hull. GIT’s coating creates a slippery surface so that any buildup is washed away as a ship moves through water, leading to less drag. If the vessels are not moving, the surface can be easily cleaned by other techniques such as water pressure or mechanical brushes.

Last year, GIT was awarded a $2.4-million Transport Canada contract to pilot its prototype smart coating system on fishing boats, with a focus on reducing underwater noise and greenhouse gas emissions. The company is also leading Canada’s $4.6-million Ocean Supercluster project aimed at further developing its smart protective coatings, and recently launched a pilot program to engage 10 boat owners who will experience the benefits of the technology firsthand.

Despite the challenges of finding and recruiting top talent during COVID-19, GIT has grown from two to nine employees since launching in 2017 and aims to hire an additional five employees by the end of 2021 as it works to scale its product line. “We’re growing our production capacity, but for now, we continue to work on a contract by contract basis,” Gaier says. “The more paint we produce, the more competitive our pricing and the closer we are to moving the needle and making a lasting change in the fight against climate change.”