ARC Marine case study image

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.

Tom Birbeck explains: “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.

Two pilot reefs have been in place in Torbay since April 2018, one close to Brixham Laboratory and a second near Thatcher Rock in Torbay. The aim is to demonstrate the successful colonisation of Reef Cubes® by marine fauna and flora and also allow us to evaluate the effectiveness of different types of concrete mixes.

The product is configured to be as cost-effective as possible for customers. Reef Cubes® are available loose, in mats or in eco-friendly, non-plastic bags.

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 a wide range of 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.

Academic research

Working with Dr Louise Firth, a Marine Ecology lecturer at University of Plymouth, an outreach project was carried out in 2018.

This was a community engagement project in which ARC Marine poured and deployed five 2.5-ton Bioblocks in the intertidal at Plymouth Marine Station. University of Plymouth students monitored the Bioblocks.

At the same time, ARC Marine also deployed five Reef Cubes® in the subtidal near Brixham, using different types of concrete. (The overall aim of using different kinds of concrete was to help further ARC Marine’s ambition to remove Portland Cement completely from the mixture in the Reef Cubes®.)

 Dr Louise Firth says: “As a marine ecologist who works in both natural and artificial coastal environments, it has been incredibly exciting to work with such an innovative company.”

Reef Cube - ARC Marine case study
ARC Marine - lab photo

Testing at University of Plymouth’s COAST Lab

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.”

Dr Stuart Stripling, Scientific Manager at COAST Lab, adds:

“We are totally committed to helping businesses test and develop their innovative products and we work closely together in a highly productive partnership.”

Tom Birbeck sums up:

“The whole experience of working with 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.”

University of Plymouth’s Brixham Laboratory

University of Plymouth’s Brixham Laboratory is an incubator which offers competitive rates to marine tech start-ups and incorporates world class lab facilities. It houses state of the art conference suites and is close to the largest fishing port in England.

Their laboratory has the ability to abstract seawater and houses include unique saltwater and freshwater treatment and distribution systems, which can be used for aquaculture, replicating any ocean or river in the world. The facility has constant temperature wet labs providing a wide range of temperatures, pH and salinity.

The Brixham Laboratory was the original base for ARC Marine and continues to be integral to their product development, despite their expansion into Cornwall and most recently Aberdeen. ARC Marine originally occupied one room at Brixham Laboratory with three people based there. They have now grown to six members of staff and will be expanding to take four rooms in March 2020. The Brixham Laboratory hosts several spin off companies from University of Plymouth, creating an excellent culture for innovation and networking. Tom says:

“Because Brixham Laboratory is a hotbed for innovative marine tech companies, we have been able to make valuable contacts there and we are also now collaborating on a joint funding bid in partnership with two other tenants.

“I cannot overstate how important Brixham Laboratory has been to our success so far. Quite simply, we would not have achieved so much without the invaluable support of University of Plymouth’s Brixham Laboratory.”
Frank Roberts, Site Manager at Brixham Laboratory, adds:
“ARC Marine is a fantastic example of the kind of dynamic, innovative business we are here to support and help grow.”

ARC Marine Figure 35: 3D scanned surface of the full sediment pit and, 1:40 scale model of monopile and the reef cube bags as scour protection units, at time t = 0 h (test D).
ARC Marine - Figure 36: 3D scanned surface of the full sediment pit and, 1:40 scale model of monopile and the reef cube bags as scour protection units, at time t = 3 h (test D).

The Plymouth Materials Characterisation Project (PMCP)

PMCP is based at the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre on the University of Plymouth campus. It is a £1.7 million EU-funded research project that links academics with industry within the South-West of England.

Important research on Reef Cubes was carried out by the project in July and August 2019. This looked at the surface textures of Reef Cubes® to test the adhesion rates for adult and juvenile kelps. It investigated the relationship between organic matter and Reef Cubes® and see how closely they moulded.

The research lab testing showed that they bonded to a higher level than had been expected and that the adhesion rates were very strong. The root systems had bonded themselves to the Reef Cube structure and have become fully integrated into Reef Cubes® proving the potential for widespread rocky reef regeneration.

Dr Natasha Stephen is Director of Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre and she is also Project Director for the Plymouth Materials Characterisation Project within the centre. She says:

“This pioneering research into the relationship between seaweed growth and synthetic structures is unique; no other studies worldwide have utilised dual-beam electron microscopy to investigate adhesion rates in this level of detail. The results have already been presented at a recent conference amongst PMCP and University of Plymouth partners, and we hope that this is only the beginning of an ongoing research partnership.”

Tom says: “It is extremely exciting to find that the research is ground-breaking and the very first of its kind globally. It has been fantastic working with PMCP on this and we are thrilled to have been able to push at the frontiers of knowledge on the relationship between organic matter and synthetic structures.”

ARC Marine and the Plymouth Materials Characterisation Project (PMCP)

It has been fantastic working with PMCP on this and we are thrilled to have been able to push at the frontiers of knowledge on the relationship between organic matter and manmade structures.

PMCP is based on the University of Plymouth campus and carried out important research on Reef Cubes in in July and August 2019.

Find out more about how the Plymouth Materials Characterisation Project supported ARC Marine here
Juvenile Kelp - ARC Marine       

University of Plymouth student internships

ARC Marine has also benefitted from two student interns from University of Plymouth, Zoe Barnes and Danielle Rowlings, who are both divers.

Work is ongoing to refine ARC Marine’s concrete mixes and to test the ecotoxicology of a variety of constituents. Much of this work has been carried out through diver surveys at the ‘underwater laboratory’ - a test reef at Thatcher’s Rock in Torbay and physical modelling experiments, as well as at Plymouth Marine Station.

Zoe has written her dissertation on the chemical leeching of Reef Cubes® using different concrete types.


ARC Marine and the Impact Lab

The Immersion Vision Theatre at University of Plymouth has done 3D modelling of Reef Cubes® and is making an augmented reality video that will be used in the marketing of the product showing Reef Cubes® in many North Sea applications.

Professor Mike Phillips, Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts, comments: “This project unlocks the power of visualisation and simulation to allow ARC Marine to seize the imagination of prospective customers and help raise their profile. The use of mixed reality immersive media can really make fragile ecological environments processes into tangible experiences.”

Tom adds: “This will help us attract the interest of potential customers globally. It is brilliant that as well as helping us in so many ways with the testing and development of our product, University of Plymouth are also helping us take it to market.”

Find out more about the Impact Lab

Impact Lab - Immersive Vision Theatre

An exciting future

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.”

ARC Marine at the 2019 Maritime UK Awards
ARC Marine - Vobster 3D scan
ARC Marine - image

ARC Marine

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.

In the 2019 Maritime UK Awards, ARC Marine was named Best Start-up of the Year.

Find out more about ARC Marine

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A new wave of innovation

The University of Plymouth is proud to be a partner on Marine-i, designed to help the marine technology sector in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly grow through research, development and innovation.

Over the next 20 years, marine technology will be transformed as a new wave of innovation allows us to exploit the full potential of our oceans in ways that were previously not possible. Bringing these new technologies to market will demand new ways of thinking and Marine-i will be pivotal in ensuring new levels of collaboration across different scientific and technical disciplines.

Visit the Marine-i website

Marine-i is part funded up to £6.8 million from the England European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) Growth Programme 2014-20. The Department for Communities and Local Government is the Managing Authority for ERDF.

SMILES project

European Regional Development Fund (ERDF)

The University of Plymouth is proud to be supported by the European Regional Development Fund. As one stream of funding under the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) Growth Programme 2014–2020, the ERDF focuses on smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
The main priorities involve contributions to research and innovation, supporting and promoting small and medium size enterprises (SMEs), and the creation of a low carbon economy.
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