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Biomimicry Providing a Concrete Solution to a Global Problem

With impending growing climate change impacts — in conjunction with the expected growth of our cities, ports and other coastal infrastructure — investing in “Blue Tech” is of prime importance.

Concrete is the most consumed material on our planet, second only to water; and consumption has dramatically increased over the last few decades with the proliferation of the human population. Today, the concrete industry is responsible for 8 percent of all global carbon emissions. This is fueling some of the same problems concrete aims to solve: More emissions lead to intensified climate change; and drive the need to build more concrete defenses along shorelines that are undergoing climate change threats, including rising sea levels and increases in extreme storms.

About 70 percent of all coastal and marine structures — such as breakwaters, piers, dykes, and seawalls — are concrete-based. Concrete is a harsh material, foreign to the marine environment; and as such, it promotes low biodiversity and is typically dominated by invasive and nuisance species.

But humans did not invent coastal defenses. Way before we started building massive man-made barriers to protect coastal communities, nature had its own product line. From coral reefs that form massive barrier reefs, to oyster reefs that can modify hydrodynamic and sediment pathways, to marsh beds or mangrove forests that can withstand severe storm events and even soften tsunamis, nature has been defending its coastlines for millennia.

Unfortunately, as humanity expanded its footprint along coastlines and waterways; instead of looking for inspiration from these amazing natural barriers, we chose to fight nature with concrete defenses. Trying to keep the water away from our cities comes at the cost of destroying natural, highly diverse, coastal ecosystems; and eradicating the same ecosystems that once protected our coastlines.

We can’t keep protecting ourselves while destroying nature and its precious resources.

This is what inspired Dr. Ido Sella and myself to develop ECOncrete® , a patented biomimetic concrete technology that enhances the biological and ecological value of coastal and marine infrastructure — such as ports, marinas and working waterfronts — while increasing the structural performance of the projects. ECOncrete embodies biomimicry’s design intention: to learn from and mimic forms and processes found in nature to create regenerative solutions.

The technology looks at three different levels to mimic natural coastal and marine ecosystems in our products: material composition, surface texture and 3D design. My co-founder, Dr. Sella, said that in order to create robust, load-bearing concrete elements that the construction industry can endorse and seamlessly apply to mega infrastructure projects, we had to find a delicate balance between the structural engineering needs and the needs of the local ecosystem. Developing bio-enhancing concrete compositions that are strong enough and durable for many decades was probably the most challenging part for us. We had to explore different materials that can be added to the concrete in order to neutralize its negative impacts on marine life.

But material is only one part of the innovation. In order to develop concrete structures that are teeming with life, we sought to develop surfaces that better mimic natural forms such as coral polyps, oyster shells and biogenic rock formations. It was obvious for us that a smooth surface just wouldn’t cut it. Marine larvae need roughness to adhere to the substrate; and to undergo successful metamorphosis into an adult coral, oyster or tube worm.

This delicate process calls for suitable surface chemistry, hydrodynamics and design features. Think about a tiny coral planula trying to settle on a smooth seawall that experiences very rapid flow across the element. Chances for attachment are slim, unless we generate complex surfaces like natural ones that create micro-turbulence and facilitate the probability of the plantulae to settle. Imagine it this way: tiny marine organisms are being shuttled around by currents looking for a place to settle, but when a current meets a flat surface it shoots quickly and forcefully around it. Complex surfaces with rough textures and little holes slow down currents of water, creating swirling flows that push larvae and planulae against the structure’s surface, giving them lots of opportunities to attach and begin growing.

The third pillar of ECOncrete’s innovation is science-based 3D designs. This is where we take biomimicry to the extreme. Low structural diversity equals low biological diversity; and this is where we come in and design biological niches, shelter and even nursing grounds as an integral part of massive structural concrete elements such as seawall panels and armoring blocks. We study the needs of the local ecosystem and local species, and even drill down to life history traits of key species and integrate their habitat needs into our designs. We add holes, crevices and water-retaining features, all while carefully maneuvering away from structural components such as rebar to maintain structural integrity.

Ray C. Anderson, founder & Chairman of Interface, is probably the most direct link between biomimicry and industry. In 1994, he began a green industrial revolution by declaring Mission Zero® — a goal to transform his business to have zero negative impact on the planet by 2020. This was a bold step for a billion-dollar carpet tile manufacturer that had never thought about the environment, in an era in which others were just beginning to talk about sustainability.

Twenty-five years later, his life-changing epiphany was achieved — leading to transformed supply chains, product lines and new business models, and creating a powerful ripple effect across industries and geographies. An integral part of this transformation was weaving biomimicry into the fabric of Interface by looking to nature for inspiration and out-of-the box solutions. This transformation occurred in 2000 with Entropy® — the world’s first biomimetic carpet tile.

In the spirit of Anderson’s mantra of ‘doing well by doing good,’ and after having won the Biomimicry’s 2018 Global Design Challenge for our Tide Pool Armor product, ECOncrete was recently chosen as the winners of the Ray of Hope Prize® competition. The expert panel of judges recognized how we implement biomimicry thoughtfully to change the way coastal and marine construction industries operate.

The beauty is that through biomimicry, the life that adheres to our products not only rejuvenates the local ecosystem, it also increases the structural performance of the structure and offers a natural carbon sink. This is thanks to the growth of ecosystem engineers, and calcifying organisms such as oysters, corals, tube worms and coralline algae that secrete calcium carbonate skeletons and encase the concrete in a process called bioprotection. In addition, during the calcification process, these organisms are uptaking CO2 from the water and transforming it into calcium carbonate, thus reducing some of the massive carbon footprint of concrete structures and extending the lifetime of the structure (now able to reach 50 or even 120 years). This is a unique combination of biomimicry and bioutilization, working with nature, for nature, and for humans alike.

With impending growing climate change impacts — in conjunction with the expected growth of our cities, ports and other coastal infrastructure — investing in “Blue Tech” is of prime importance. The Ray of Hope Prize will give our company a boost in “doing well by doing good.” Ray of Hope enables us to have an amazing platform for spreading innovative coastlines and educating the governments, policy makers, engineers and landscape architects that are developing and designing our future waterfronts. Working with these partners, we can popularize the paramount significance of biomimicry and environmentally sensitive technologies as integral solutions for a sustainable future.

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