Jay B. Hilotin interview with Professor Wolf H. Hilbertz was posted in Gulfnews.com in
Electricity can now help regenerate UAE’s dying coral reefs or build new ones.
Professor Wolf H. Hilbertz, a German conservationist, said: “People here are talking a lot about coral bleaching (the difficult conditions for marine fauna and flora created by global warming), rising sea levels and the effects of dredging. What is important is to take direct action now.”
Prof Hilbertz, an architect turned marine scientist and inventor, said the Gulf waters were getting saltier and warmer.
“On the UAE side, there aren’t practically any coral reefs left. But Biorock technology allows us to restore coral growth or build new reefs even under the most difficult conditions when other restoration techniques fail,” he said.
A revolutionary new process known as Biorock, which Prof. Hilbertz invented together with research partners in the U.S., relies on the power of low-votage electricity. The process, technically known as electro-deposition of minerals in sea water, is protected under international intellectual property legislation.
During the last 30 years, the former professor of architecture at the University of Texas has developed the technique in labs, on-site experiments and large-scale applications in more than 15 different countries.
Prof. Hilbertz and his research partner of 18 years, Harvard coral expert Dr. Thomas Goreau, are engaged in the development and application of Biorock.
They are currently working with conservation organisations, government institutions and the private sector, mostly resort hotel and dive operators. They also work with fishing villages that want to increase catch yields.
The technique behind Biorock technology is simple. It involves the use of metal structures (cathodes) which can be of any shape and size connected to the negative terminal of a direct current power supply. These frames are placed on the sea floor and several smaller positive-charged metal grids (anodes) are placed next to them.
The power supply may be on land, on the sea floor or on a raft floating above. The electricity can be supplied by tapping into the municipal power grid, solar panels, wind or ocean current-driven turbines or hydrogen fuel cells.
Coral fragments, mostly taken from anchoring sites, are transplanted onto the reef framework and the vigorous growth begins.
Since the early 1950s, marine fisheries have been installing artificial reefs for manipulation of fish populations, using concrete rip-rap, natural stone, bricks, and a wealth of other materials.
All too often, these installations furnished a welcome excuse to discard refuse, such as tyres, cars, ships, planes, busses, tanks and offshore oil platforms. These projects have been undertaken with little or no regard to marine ecology, said Prof Hilbertz.
In addition to man-made threats, nature is also taking its toll on coral populations.
There are many threats. Recent reports point to increasing bacterial and fungal diseases attacking corals. As the level rises and reefs deteriorate, coastal areas lose their natural protection, resulting in beach and land erosion as well as salt water intrusion into aquifers.
The Biorock method involves an assembly of electrodes which forms a galvanic cell in seawater.
Electrolytic reactions at the cathode, the growing reef component, attract positively-charged calcium and magnesium ions abundant in seawater. These chemicals build up and form hard white limestone around the reef elements.
The limestone, which has a high mechanical strength, may form at an average rate of 1cm per month, depending on the seawater conditions and current applied, said Hilbertz. At the same time, organisms on or around the growing substrate are affected by electrochemical conditions, accelerating their growth rates.
“You can practically install new ecosystems overnight this way. Every organism in the sea that builds its shell or skeleton like corals do grows much faster. And Biorock itself is similar to natural coral growth, just accelerated by electricity,” explained Prof Hilbertz.
Extensive experimental applications, demonstrations and commercial projects commenced as early as 30 years ago covering mariculture, coral reef restoration, offshore construction, shore protection and island building proved the utility of the technology.
“We demonstrated that Biorock reefs thrive even in conditions that kill natural reefs. The secret lies in changing the chemical properties of the seawater in contact with the growing reef,” said Prof Hilbertz
“I came to the UAE to make contributions to the most far-sighted and ambitious sea-ward expansion we have ever seen since the Dutch closed their last dyke.”
But it is only now that Prof. Hilbertz and Dr. Goreau are introducing Biorock technology in the UAE. By applying the Biorock process, he said, Dubai would pioneer a marine natural wonderworld that would be a first worldwide.
“It will be an ecological and economical pace-setter for other projects to following the Gulf region and other parts of the world. It is vital to restore and preserve the living resources of the Gulf for the benefit of the people who depend on and live around it.”
The technology, he said, will help create a marine natural wonderworld off Dubai that would be a first worldwide.
Wiping out the negative impact
A ‘heatstroke’ in 1997 and 1998 caused massive ‘bleaching’ and subsequent mortality that decimated about 90 per cent of coral reefs in the waters off Abu Dhabi and had extreme negative effects on all corals in the Gulf, an event scientists blame on global warming.
Conventional reef restoration techniques have failed and global warming has made marine parks or protected areas of little use.
Global warming, slow or no regeneration of marine life, and huge volumes of brine from desalination plants are some of the major threats to the Gulf waters.
A World Wildlife Fund official said the average size of particular species of fish caught in Gulf waters have also shrunk by 30 per cent.
Survival rates of corals on Biorock reef structures during the heatstroke event in the spring of 1998 exceeded by far the survival of corals on adjacent natural coral reef formations.
Biorock reef structures have been termed ‘Coral Arks’, saving and keeping alive as many species of corals as possible, while all other reefs worldwide are being decimated or dying.