Floundering flights saved by a fish?


Freezing temperatures followed by snow put paid to almost one million passengers’ travel plans1 in the week before De-icing plane prior to take off with conventional glycol anti-freeze and de-icers © Chinook MDH CorpChristmas.  With a limited number of snow ploughs, de-icing machines unable to cope and planes freezing on the runways havoc followed at all major London airports. Thousands of travellers were forced to search for emergency hotel accommodation, sleep on airport floors or abandon their travel plans. 


But could an Arctic fish prevent situations like this happening in the future and help bring costs down?


Over millions of years plants and animals have evolved to protect themselves from freezing conditions.  Scientists have found that many of these organisms contain unique molecules known as antifreeze proteins (AFPs).  These AFPs are capable of lowering the freezing point of a solution, keeping ice crystals very small or preventing their formation altogether. 


Scientists at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Applied Materials Research, have succeeded in incorporating anti-freeze proteins from the Winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus) into a paint coating that could eventually be used on airplanes.  The paint would prevent frost and ice from building up on the aircraft wings3 , removing the laborious and expensive process of de-icing.


Winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus) © Jeffrey Gallant, Underwater Observers NetworkMethods of bonding the AFPs to these paint surfaces have been developed without damaging their structures4.  Such coatings tested inside laboratory chambers of cold humid air, have shown promising results.  Not yet commercially available, such a product should attract considerable interest given the cost savings that such a paint job could bring. 


With the huge business and environmental costs associated with air travel during freezing conditions, survival mechanisms developed by diverse biological organisms have provided the inspiration for innovative technology. These advances, could dramatically improve human well-being and contribute to more efficient use of both economic and natural resources.  Better management of our precious natural capital is urgently needed to stem biodiversity loss and support sustainable economic development.


For more information on anti-freeze proteins go to the Natural Solutions pages of the JNCC website.


Did you know? 


The five days of snow and freezing conditions in December 2010 cost:


  • British Airport Authorities (BAA) £24 million1
  • British Airways £50 million1,2
  • Virgin Atlantic £10 million1,2


De-icing aircrafts and airports is an expensive business:


Annually, North America and Europe spends US$2,000,000,000 on de-icing (not including the costs to the environment and delays)6


Aircraft de-icers cost up to   £300,0005

Snow ploughs                        £20,000 to £25,0005

De-icing a single aircraft      £2,000 (depending upon temperature and size of plane)7 and

                                                  uses 300-400 gallons of de-icer7


Environmental costs of chemicals in anti-freeze and de-icers:


The chemicals used in de-icers and anti-freeze, such as glycol, have a serious effect on the environment. In 2010 Heathrow Airport was fined £13,000, ordered to pay court costs of £15,000 and compensation of £195,000 to a local lake owner. This was due to the release of glycol, causing a large number of fish deaths, relocation of others and loss of business 7,8.





1. Milmo, D (2011). BAA defends Heathrow snow plan, The Guardian Online

2. Milmo, D (2011). Big freeze costs BA £50 million, The Guardian Online

3. Robson, D (2007). Fish antifreeze inspires ice-proof paint, New Scientist Online

4. Fraunhofer Institute. Ice-free surfaces by anti-freeze proteins, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

5. Channel 4 News (2010). Heathrow cut snow defence spend by two-thirds

6. Chinook MDH Corp (2010)

7. Airport Watch reporting on Aviation and the Environment (2003)

8. Coombs D (2010) Heathrow Airport fined for causing death of hundreds of fish, Uxbridge Gazette online. Accessed January 2011



Contact File


Amanda Gregory

Sustainability Advice

Tel: +44 (0)1733 866811


| JNCC - Adviser to Government on Nature Conservation | Site Map | Search | Legal | Feedback | List Access Keys |