In 2015, James Doddrell and Tom Birbeck set up ARC Marine, the first eco-engineering company in Europe specialising in accelerating reef creation. Reef Cubes® are a patented invention developed and owned by ARC Marine.
ARC Marine engaged with the Marine-i project for help with developing their unique product for global markets. Through Marine-i they received grant funding, technical advice, and access to support through University of Plymouth, a partner in the Marine-i project.
A Marine-i Rapid Innovation Grant was used to purchase diving equipment for conducting vital sea trials. The grant has helped ARC Marine carry out extended surveys and eco-mooring installation trials in preparation for full commercial launch.
Tom Birbeck explains the rationale for their innovative product: “If no action is taken, there is a real danger that stocks of many species that we rely on for food could collapse within the next 30 years. Important commercial species such as native oysters, crabs, lobsters and demersal fish such as cod and bass are in an especially precarious situation.
“Reef Cubes® offer a robust, interlocking modular system for building an artificial reef or for creating a marine habitat around an existing structure, such as a wind turbine or oil rig.
Developing the product
“Our patented design for each cube features an integral chamber and six passages through which marine creatures can access the structure. Sediment collects naturally inside the cube and this chamber also provides an excellent habitat for many diverse species. The only other companies operating in this field in the UK were using old technology and standard concrete. We wanted to create an innovative flexible artificial reef that revolutionises how marine projects impact the eco-systems they disturb, to create a positive net benefit. There are only a handful of companies delivering comparable products anywhere in the world.
“Reef Cubes® are designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible. We use low-carbon concrete with alternative binders to Portland Cement. We use marine friendly additives so that it does not disturb the natural chemical balance of the sea water and there are no plastic materials in the cube.
“As well as marine conservation, our lab tests demonstrate that Reef Cubes® can play an important role in reducing scouring of marine structures. This generates significant savings on operations and maintenance expenditure. Furthermore, we are seeking generic regulatory approvals to confirm that there is no need for decommissioning of Reef Cubes® scour protection or cable and pipeline protection. Reef Cubes® can then remain in place as a permanent structure, providing a long-term habitat for important marine species. In fact, Reef Cubes® are the only cable and pipeline protection product available to offshore energy developers which is free of plastics and also reduces decommissioning costs.
Testing at University of Plymouth’s COAST Lab
University of Plymouth’s COAST Lab has been used to help prove the commercial viability of Reef Cubes®.
Tom Birbeck explains: “In order to break into significant global markets such as offshore renewables, we need to be able to provide proof that our product will be reliable under all kinds of ocean conditions. At COAST Lab, we have been able to test our product in relation to a range of variables such as currents and water depths. COAST Lab provides physical model testing with combined waves, currents and winds at scales appropriate for device testing, environmental modelling and coastal engineering. It mimics a real-life ocean environment at scale. It really is an incredible resource to have within the South West.
“If we had not been able to use COAST Lab for product testing, we would have had to travel to Amsterdam to find a comparable facility to meet our needs. As a young, small company based in the South West of England, it is fantastic to be able to access these facilities on our doorstep and COAST Lab is providing us with the evidence we need to be able to approach demanding global clients with confidence.”
Two sets of hydrodynamic physical model tests have taken place at COAST Lab to assess the capability of Reef Cubes® to prevent scour and remediation around a monopile.
The first set was performed in early 2018. Testing took place in a flume with a constant current. Reef Cube® bags were successful at remediating a scour pit that had been allowed to develop and in a separate test, they successfully prevented a scour pit from developing.
In May 2019, a larger scale physical modelling test took place in the Coastal Basin at COAST Lab. These tests corroborated the first set, proving that Reef Cube® bags arranged in specific configurations are able to prevent scour around a monopile, in extremely dynamic storm wave conditions with strong currents, at shallow depth. They also showed that the Reef Cubes® remained stable and helped set limitations on the depth of water in which the Reef Cubes® could be used, narrowing the minimum water depth to 10-12 metres. This meant that Reef Cube bags are a feasible option for scour protection.
Tom Birbeck says: “As well as the superb testing facilities, we have been overwhelmed by the helpfulness and the quality of the advice from the researchers and lecturers at University of Plymouth. For example, Business Research Fellows Carlos Perez Collazo and Oscar de la Torre planned and assisted with our testing programme and their contribution has been invaluable. Indeed, all the University staff we encountered have been a fount of knowledge and advice, readily sharing ideas and making suggestions, as well as passing on valuable international leads from their own networks.”
Tom Birbeck adds: “The whole experience of working with Marine-I, University of Plymouth and COAST Lab has been extremely positive. It is proving to be a valuable catalyst in helping us along our journey towards commercialisation.”
An exciting future for Reef Cubes
Summarising ARC Marine’s journey so far, Tom Birbeck says: “This has been a very steep learning curve, with the Reef Cubes® concept growing significantly in its scope and commercial potential since its inception.
“Originally, we simply wanted to create an artificial reef that divers could enjoy which would also contribute to marine conservation in the UK. Today, Reef Cubes® has evolved into a unique product that could reach a massive global market. We have created a new technology that has revolutionised reef design.
“As a young company, we feel hugely grateful to have the world class facilities of University of Plymouth right on our doorstep, combined with the expertise of the university’s researchers and the enthusiastic help of their students. They have provided invaluable support at every key stage of the project. Having established a manufacturing base in Cornwall in 2017, we now also plan to open an office in Aberdeen in 2020, to operate alongside our existing offices in Brixham and Truro.
“We have been granted a commercial trial in early 2020 by Vattenfall, which is the second largest offshore wind operator in the world. This will involve deployment at their Aberdeenshire test facility, the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre. The positive results evidenced by our University of Plymouth research, in particular the fact that there is no scouring, have given Vattenfall the confidence to progress to real world testing.
“ARC Marine has developed such a depth of expertise that we now have ambitions to become a global leader in marine eco-engineering and conservation projects. We also believe that, as well as being a huge commercial opportunity, Reef Cubes® will deliver a lasting benefit for the world’s marine ecosystems. Our goal is to create the largest man-made reef network throughout the world.”
In the 2019 Maritime UK Awards, ARC Marine was named Best Start-up of the Year.