Teodora Cosovic, Giovanna Janes, Sydney Kusch, Matthew Paulino, Colton Routtenberg and Taylor Wheatley
- Community Partner: SeaBrick
- Degree: Bachelor of Applied Science
- Campus: Vancouver
SeaBrick is a startup company trying to create an interlocking, buoyant brick system made from kelp that could be used as an alternative to metal or concrete for marine infrastructure, such a docks, offshore power generation platforms, industrial manufacturing platforms or floating homes.
We were asked to improve the strength of a kelp-based brick to achieve compressive strength of at least 19MPa, the value of standard Portland cement. The overall objective was to optimize the material composition of the core brick and to create a scalable manufacturing process.
Cement production accounts for eight percent of global carbon emissions, making it one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis.
When concrete is used in marine environments, it can also be very damaging to the environment, with chemical leaching increasing alkalinity and potentially harming ocean life.
Made from kelp, seabricks address the pressing need to decarbonize the marine and construction sector. Whereas a cubic metre of concrete emits 250 kilograms of carbon, a cubic metre of kelp will sequester about 200 kilograms of carbon.
Our design process and challenges
Perhaps the most significant challenge was determining how to create a biodegradable brick made primarily from kelp that would be stronger than concrete but have a lower density than water.
While adding more kelp to the mix increases the strength value, it also increases density. That meant we needed to focus on fillers (which themselves had to be biodegradable) or additives that would increase strength.
The next main component of this project was the manufacturing process and determining how to make the bricks. In the first semester we used a hot press and then stacked the resulting panels into a sandwich layer. However, the hot press method is expensive, energy intensive and hard to scale. Our client wanted us to find a manufacturing method that could be easily set up in remote coastal communities. For this and other reasons, we switched to curing the bricks in a furnace. There was a lot of trial and error when it came to determining the best temperature and duration to achieve our results.
The final stage was compression testing to see if our bricks met our strength objective.
We also conducted a life-cycle analysis that looked at resource use, energy use and waste generated during production, distribution, use and end of life.
What excited us most
It’s exciting to think of a future where you could build infrastructure with a readily accessible material like kelp.
It was great when our product started to feel like concrete, rather than some of the earlier versions that were a little soft and not suitable for building anything supportive! There was definitely excitement – and relief – when the compression testing results started reaching the number we were aiming for and we realized this could be viable.
In fact, our sponsor has been in discussion with architecture firms that are interested in using a product with these properties.
What we learned
This is the first time we worked with a sponsor. It was interesting to have a set of deliverables and regular check-ins where you sometimes have good news to share and other times you don’t. We can imagine this is what it would be like to work for a consulting engineering firm.
The open-endedness of this project was inspiring and challenging. Our sponsor had an idea, and it was up to us to use the knowledge and tools we’ve acquired over the course of our engineering degrees to figure it out and design something that could work.
Our project’s future
No one knew the answer, but everyone was very supportive and rooting for us to succeed.
We made a lot of progress on the solution but weren’t able to achieve the density required for it to be used in floating marine infrastructure. We put together a long list of recommendations in three categories for future research regarding composition, manufacturing and testing.
We owe a lot of thanks to Dr. Jon Nakane and our project sponsor John Richardson. We all felt very lucky to be part of such a hands-on project. Everyone was so willing to help us out – whether that was our sponsor sending us articles and research, getting access to equipment at UBC or our profs asking if we had considered a certain approach.