Ancient, submerged treasures could be saved with latest amazing nanotech

22 Aug 2018

Image: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

One day soon, it could be possible to haul up ancient shipwrecks and artefacts, and preserve them using advanced nanotechnology.

If you have ever been to see the 16th-century English warship the Mary Rose (or any other recovered shipwreck for that matter), you would have noticed that it is constantly sprayed with water.

This is because the ship would quickly disintegrate without a constant water supply after centuries of being submerged in the depths of the English Channel.

Now, scientists have formulated an idea that could not only help preserve historically important salvaged ships, but their contents as well, without needing to douse them in water.

Presenting its findings to a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society, a team of UK-based researchers said it has found a new way to use smart nanocomposites to preserve the Mary Rose.

The new project’s principal investigator, Serena Corr from the University of Glasgow, said the idea came about after having a drink with Eleanor Schofield, head of conservation at the Mary Rose Trust.

“She was working on techniques to preserve the wood hull and assorted artefacts, and needed a way to direct the treatment into the wood,” Corr said.

“We had been working with functional magnetic nanomaterials for applications in imaging, and we thought we might be able to apply this technology to the Mary Rose.”

What happened to the ship?

While buried in the seabed, sulphur-reducing marine bacteria migrated into the wood of the Mary Rose, producing hydrogen sulphide.

This gas reacted with iron ions from corroding structures, such as the ship’s cannons, to form ion sulphides – something that rapidly oxidises in regular air.

By spraying it with cold water, the original conservation team prevented it from drying out and hosting any more microbial activity.

The ship’s hull was then sprayed with different types of polyethylene glycol – a common polymer – to strengthen it.

With this knowledge, the conservation team conducted the first real-time experiment to closely examine the evolution of oxidised sulphur and iron species, giving scientists what they need to design new, targeted treatments for the removal of these harmful species.

Can be guided through wood

Now, Corr and her team are working on a nanocomposite based on core magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles that include agents on their surfaces to remove the ions.

Capable of being applied directly on to porous wood, the smart nanotechnology could be guided to particular areas of the wood using external magnetic fields.

A major advantage of this approach is that it allows for the complete removal of free iron and sulphate ions from the wood, and these nanocomposites can be tuned by tweaking their surfaces.

“Conservators will have, for the first time, a state-of-the-art quantitative and restorative method for the safe and rapid treatment of wooden artefacts,” Corr said.

“We plan to then transfer this technology to other materials recovered from the Mary Rose, such as textiles and leather.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic