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Rutgers receives $12.6 million grant to develop oyster ecosystem to protect coastline

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will facilitate oyster reproduction, design a reef that can absorb wave motion and be strengthened by oyster populations and create a mosaic habitat of organisms within the reef, says co-leader of the project. – Photo by Courtesy of David Bushek

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Rutgers a $12.6 million grant for its initiative to create an oyster-based ecosystem that will protect coastlines from storms, flooding and erosion.

The initiative, “Reefense: A Mosaic Oyster Habitat (MOH) for Coastal Defense,” aims to develop both biological and engineered oyster reefs on the Gulf Coast to help manage the shoreline as sea level rises and storm conditions continue to put communities and infrastructure at risk.

David Bushek, a professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences and director of Rutgers’ Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, is co-leading the Reefense project along with Richard Riman, a distinguished professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. 

Riman said the project will accomplish three goals: facilitating oyster reproduction within the artificial reef, designing a reef that can both innately absorb wave motion and be strengthened by its oyster populations and creating a habitat of many organisms within the reef. 

To build the reef, he said he has developed new concrete materials that will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Riman said that most manufactured reefs are made of concrete, which produces 7 to 10 percent of carbon emissions created directly by humans. 

“My passion is new materials and getting our planet more in tune with nature so our descendants will have a good quality of life,” he said. “Our project creates an opportunity to reduce these emissions by experimenting with new materials that significantly reduce (carbon) emissions.”

Riman said the next step for the project is to obtain a facility to manufacture 800 reef units, but the team has not been able to find such a space and hopes the School of Engineering can provide a solution. 

Looking back, he said the idea for this project originated after he and Bushek were first introduced to each other by Margaret Brennan, the director of resource and economic development at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) and a mutual colleague of theirs.

“(Bushek and I) chatted about our research interests and realized we were brothers from different mothers. We hit it off really well and found dozens of ways to work together,” he said. “We then went after the DARPA Reefense program because it provided interesting challenges for us both and a chance to tilt the scales towards (delivering) a natural solution to the age-old problem of preserving shoreline.”

In regard to how the project has been implemented so far, Bushek said there are several technical areas of the project that are in motion, including the development of the novel low-carbon-footprint cement in Riman’s lab.

Bushek said one of the project’s collaborating teams from Australia has a method of making cement biodegradable after a set period of time. If the novel low-carbon-footprint cement is given such a treatment, it could be used in artificial reefs that degrade and leave behind a permanent oyster reef, he said.

Other areas of development include ecosystem engineering, which examines the fine structures of a surface and how marine organisms can attach to them, and adaptive biology, which focuses on developing oyster resistance to disease and temperature stress, Bushek said. 

He said that while the project is still in its early stages, it has already come with its own set of challenges including coordinating with the nine different research institutions involved in the project.

He also said the timeline of the project is especially fast-paced, with DARPA wanting to see results as soon as possible.

“One of the challenges in any kind of environmental research is making sure that you do it in a way that is helpful, not harmful, not negatively impacting one thing to the benefit of another,” Bushek said. “So balancing those is always a challenge.”

In addition to Riman and Bushek, other collaborators on this project include Hani Nassif, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, as well as Ximing Guo and Daphne Munroe, a distinguished professor and associate professor, respectively, in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory.

Munroe said the purpose of the project highlights how necessary it is to provide aid to areas such as the coastline for the sake of protecting the environment.

“To think about how we improve the resilience or the integrity of how we protect our coastlines is becoming increasingly important,” she said. “It’s really important for us to use the knowledge and the tools that we have to come up with creative solutions.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to further clarify information surrounding the specific type of cement used in the project.

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