Submarine and coastal infrastructure often inflict severe stress on natural ecosystems. But the Israeli startup ECOncrete has come up with an environmentally sensitive concrete admix that favors biodiversity growth on and around structures such as ports, bridges and waterfronts.
Coastal infrastructure development can be both a blessing and a curse. More than 3 billion people — nearly half the world’s population— settled near the coastlines worldwide depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods, according to the United Nations — a figure that is expected to grow in the upcoming decades. And while infrastructures such as ports, dams, underwater pipes and waterfronts are necessary for the economic development of these populations, they inevitably —and sometimes irreparably— harm the very same ecosystems they need in order to thrive.
The reason is quite simple. “The chemical composition, plain design and low surface complexity of most concrete coastal and underwater infrastructures prevent marine organisms from settling on them, favouring the proliferation of invasive species and the decline of local biodiversity,” says Dr. Ido Sella, marine biologist and co-founder of ECOncrete, an Israeli startup that has come up with an eco-friendly concrete admix that could be the answer to this conundrum.
Co-founded by Dr. Sella and Dr. Shimrit Perkol-Finkel —also a marine biologist— in 2012, the company now provides concrete solutions including bio-enhancing concrete additives and science-based designed infrastructure, able not only to allow life to settle and grow, but also to reduce the ecological footprint of ports, marinas, coastal protections schemes and urban waterfront projects, all while improving their structural integrity. And it was all thanks to one lucky break.
After finishing their PhD, both ECOncrete’s co-founders went on to work as consultants on large infrastructure projects for different sectors, such as the oil industry and fish farms, where they witnessed first-hand how harmful concrete structures were for marine life and the environment. “There are some major issues with traditional concrete structures, because when they go into the water, it can take 30 to 50 years for life to start growing on them,” explains Dr. Sella. “It’s the chemistry of concrete itself that affects the ability of some marine organisms, such as corals and oysters, from settling on these walls.” Such organisms tend to settle somewhere and stay there for good — they literally can’t move anymore. So they don’t just cling onto the first thing they can grab, they choose wisely where they settle. “Chemicals added into the traditional cement mix, specifically for marine and coastal infrastructure, such as plasticisers, freeze agents and anti-crack aggregates, are a deterrent for these organisms,” says Dr. Sella.
It was in 2011, while conducting a survey to evaluate the biology of the seawalls of a power plant in the Israeli Mediterranean coast, that they stumbled upon a portion of the wall that appeared to be attracting more marine organisms than the rest — and quickly started researching what was causing the phenomena. “The portion in question had been put up alongside the others, but something had been done to the concrete mix of that particular portion that was affecting biological performance,” recalls Dr. Sella. After some experiments in the Mediterranean and in the US East Coast, adding different components to the concrete mix —which ECOncrete’s co-founder refers to as a powder mix made from the industry’s by-products, as he prefers not to disclose the exact formula— they finally hit the spot and came up with structures able to attract biodiversity only three months after going into the water.
But these structures' efficiency relies on more than just a magic formula. ECOncrete also works on modifying the surface of the typically plain underwater infractures to provide a more attractive environment for species to cling on to and properly grow — using biomimicry, which basically means mimicking these organisms' natural habitats. The company counts on a multidisciplinary team of marine ecologists, biologists, geologists, concrete experts, engineers and designers, to create tailor-made and modular concrete units that will, when put together, serve as bridge foundations, piers, breakwaters and dykes, as well as seawalls, tide pools and concrete mattresses — all of which comply with construction standards typically required for coastal and marine constructions.
“Our technology reduces these structures' carbon footprint [up to 46% in some cases], but it also encourages the growth of flora and fauna, which in turn serve as a shield to protect the structures,” says Dr. Sella. Indeed, oysters and corals can physically protect the concrete from scour and chloride attacks, while a plant canopy is able to buffer temperature changes and humidity level on the concrete’s surface. And there’s more. “While attaching to ECOncrete’s surfaces, some marine organisms —like corals and oysters— secrete calcium carbonate, creating a sort of active natural carbon sink in the process,” he explains. “Each kilogram of calcium carbonate produced by an oyster shell attaching to these structures captures 120 grammes of CO2.” Once attached, these organisms also enhance the floral activity of seagrass and kelp on the area —which also capture carbon dioxide—, attracting in turn other species and building up biodiversity’s resilience in the area.
Since its breakthrough, the Tel Aviv-based company has been deploying its revolutionary technology, working alongside developers, authorities, contractors, landscape architects, engineers and ecologists in Israel, Europe, North America —where ECOncrete opened its own subsidiary — and recently started working on a one and a half year infrastructure project in Hong Kong. Its end goal? To make the future coastal concrete infractures a haven for marine biodiversity, instead of its doom.
This article has been written as part as a series of stories produced for open_resource by Sparknews, a French social enterprise that aims to foster new narratives that can help accelerate a social and environmental transition to tackle our world’s most pressing issues.