Landscape Faculty/Student Design Collaboration
Leads to Possible Patent
It began as a speculative design, a prototype system of pre-cast, perforated and self-buoyant concrete vessels to float a forest of trees in Lake Erie, Toledo, to reduce harmful algal blooms. Two years later that collaborative design project by Assistant Professor Jake Boswell and senior landscape architecture student Marty Koelsch has received a provisional utility patent, and is currently in review for a full utility patent from the U.S. Patent Office.
The original design concept received an honorable mention in the 2017 LA+ IMAGINATION Design Ideas Competition. To see if a floating forest could really work, Boswell and Koelsch made several early prototypes in the Knowlton School's Fab-Lab. Those early prototypes attracted the attention of Ohio State University's Technology Commercialization Office.
After applying for and receiving a provisional patent, Boswell enlisted the help of Lisa Burris and Nan Hu, Assistant Professors in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering, and Rachel Gabor, Assistant Professor in Watershed Hydrology in the School of Environmental and Natural Resources in testing and optimizing the design.
Boswell indicates that the decision to advance the project to a commercially viable prototype was based on its applicability. In 2014, algal blooms shut down the water supply to 400,000 people in the Toledo area. Those blooms, which now occur every year in many of Ohio’s lakes and reservoirs, are due to high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. “Our design solution is to create a buoyant concrete vessel that permits a nutrient exchange between the plant and the water,” stated Boswell. “The plant’s biomass can help absorb the algae creating nutrients.” By decreasing light penetration, the vessel’s shade can also lower water temperatures, creating a less favorable environment for bloom outbreaks.
The vessel concept has advanced significantly since the first prototypes. The current concrete mix can withstand an average compression of over 1100 pounds per square inch—not bad for a material that is approximately half as dense as water, and a significant increase from the original baseline of 120psi. Experiments with the mix and the form of the vessel have also improved its load bearing capacity to almost 600 lbs. for a 4-foot diameter vessel.
With continued success in the design and material of the vessel, Boswell recently applied for a full patent. Under the title, “Permeable Concrete Vessel for Creating Floating Aquatic Habitats,” the patent submission encompasses not just the concept of the vessel, but the concrete mixture as well.
“I really like the idea of a floating tree,” commented Boswell. The team’s plan is to make that happen with an installation of the technology at the Chadwick Arboretum Research Lake in the spring of 2019.