Outfitting large aquariums with artificial habitats of polymer matrix composites could make the installations more affordable and considerably lighter than today's predominantly concrete-based displays, according to an international developer. ``It would make a lot of economic and artistic sense to use a composite material as both a waterproof structural container and the required surface texture of the habitat,'' said Frederick P. Wales, vice president and chief operating officer of International Design for the Environment Associates Inc.
Though more research and development is needed, Wales said he sees the potential to reduce structural and life-cycle costs, prefabricate exhibit components and achieve ``more believable artificial habitats.''
Two methods exist today: prefabricated panels of glass-fiber-reinforced concrete and hand-carved joints form most habitats. In the second method, the whole surface is hand-carved using a relatively stiff mix that will hold its shape.
Paint and stain on the surface replicates the desired material with either method. A free-flowing grout fills any voids behind the habitat surface to prevent water stagnation.
Typically, plastics are used only for corals, special biological and man-made elements, and sealing or shaping difficult conditions.
``What you end up with is a very heavy total exhibit assembly,'' Wales said.
Molders can sculpt epoxy resins at room temperature for long periods and harden them permanently under an elevated temperature once the required effect is achieved.
``This type of resin combined with glass fiber could work well if the cost of the final assembly was competitive with the largely concrete system,'' Wales said.
``The ability to carve specific finishes in the positive and to avoid the patterns that are typical of GFRC panels will allow very accurate replications of nature,'' he said.
International Design manages aquarium developments from feasibility and conceptual design through construction and start-up operations.
The firm was formed in 1990 as a spin-off from the architectural firm Cambridge Seven Associates. Both operations are in Cambridge, Mass.
The company held a design/ build contract for the exhibits and start-up operations of Europe's largest aquarium, in Genoa, Italy, and is responsible for turnkey delivery of the Lisbon Aquarium in Portugal in May 1998.