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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

NC trend: Beneficial blockers, Raleigh-based Natrx uses a 3D printing solution to soil erosion

Natrx, founded by serial entrepreneur Leonard Nelson and coastal engineer Matt Campbell, has patented a 3D printing process that creates environmentally friendly, less expensive blocks weighing as much as 2,500 pounds that can be used instead of rocks, old tires and other materials. The blocks, which can be printed in various shapes and sizes, are used in rivers, estuaries and other waterways from the Chesapeake River to the Gulf of Mexico by landowners, companies and environmental groups.

The company has now completed two dozen projects and placed more than 100,000 tons of its blocks and recently raised $3.5 million from investors to open production facilities to expand its operations. The backers include Ponderosa Ventures, a San Francisco investment firm formed by billionaire Tom Steyer, a climate change activist and 2020 presidential candidate.

Natrx just signed on for a large coastal restoration project in Hawaii, and it’s talking about performing some mangrove restoration work in South America. In November, it received a
$1 million National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant to continue development of its remote-sensing technology.

“If you can stop the erosion and do it cost effectively and create a healthy habitat, that is the slam-dunk of success,” says Tad Schwendler, the company’s chief operating officer.

David Sneed, the executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, has worked with Natrx on two projects. In October, one of Natrx’s 3D artificial reefs was submerged near the mouth of the Pamlico River near Hobucken, and in May 2022, a similar artificial reef was installed upstream near the mouth of the Bath Creek.

Each cost about $100,000, says Sneed, who worked with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries to fund the projects. “We like the size of the structures and the shape of them and think they’re going to be a really good fish habitat,” he adds. “We’d like to make this an ongoing activity to where we can do this, as long as [state officials] can get sites approved, at least once a year.” He notes that a previous reef in the Pamlico River was using old tires. “No one thought about it being a petrochemical going into the water.”

Natrx – the name is a combination of “nature” and “technology” – believes the potential market is huge, noting that more than 50% of the world’s population and $100 trillion in assets are at risk from erosion, storm surge and sea level rise. It starts by using satellite technology to review the area a customer would like to address. Then it designs the blocks to fit the habitat and uses its “Dry Forming” manufacturing process created and patented by Campbell, who holds a doctorate in biological engineering from N.C. State University. He previously worked on oyster bay restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico.

Natrx uses 3D printing to build its barriers and then uses technology to analyze their effectiveness.

The blocks, or ExoForms, can be as large as a 3-foot cube, and the company can create blocks that will interlock to create a sea wall or breakwater structure. The printer makes the shapes in about an hour, and then they’re cured. “It allows us to create natural-looking heterogeneous structures without having a standard form,” says Schwendler. The structures are about 10% of the weight of materials that have been used in the past to slow erosion, and have more than half the carbon footprint. After they’re installed, the company can assess their effectiveness using its satellite technology.

Natrx has worked with individual landowners as well as oil and gas companies, utilities and ports who have buildings or pipelines along the coast. At Hell Hole Bayou in Louisiana, it created a wall that closed erosion in a channel that also led to new oyster beds. The client, oil giant Shell, wanted something to stabilize its pipeline. For the Maryland Port Administration, it used contaminated dredge to create blocks that halted erosion at Cox Creek, Maryland. “[Natrx’s clients] have specific economic needs, trying to protect their assets in a cost effective and timely way that’s functional,” says Schwendler.

The company, which was founded in 2016, expects to be “self-sustaining in the near future,” he adds. “There are new and better ways to solve these challenges. What we want to do is employ more resilient, healthy ecosystems for customers and better habitats. They can work in concert.”

Chris Roush
Chris Roush
Chris Roush is executive editor of Business North Carolina. He can be reached at croush@businessnc.com.

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