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An environmentally-friendly and sustainable roof design that combines natural moss with recycled fishing net is the focus of a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa student-led project.

Shelby Cerwonka and Jasmine Reighard, who graduated in spring 2021 from the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, began their project as juniors in March 2020 researching which type of moss to use and how to gather materials they needed. They then collected recycled fishing nets from Sustainable Coastlines Hawaiʻi—a non-profit organization based on Oʻahu with a mission to inspire local communities to care for their coastlines—in May 2020 and began to assemble the “seawool” layer which goes between the structure and the moss.

moss and fishing net on top of a roof

In late summer 2020, the team collected the native moss called Leucobryum glaucum (pincushion moss), which is prevalent in wetter spots along the Koʻolau Mountains in Windward Oʻahu. The pair built four, 5-foot wooden structures at UH’s Magoon Research Facility in Mānoa Valley to construct the roofs on. In September 2020, Cerwonka and Reighard attached the “seawool” layer to each of the structures, followed by the moss. They spent the remainder of fall 2020 and spring 2021 growing the moss, figuring out the most efficient way to care for them and collecting data for their research.

“The idea was that it would decrease internal temperatures, decrease the amount of electricity needed to run your AC and less CO2 will be emitted into the atmosphere,” Reighard said.

“There are systems like this already available, but not really in Hawaiʻi—they’re on the mainland. And one of the main goals they serve is insulation to the inside of a house,” Cerwonka said. “We wanted to create a system that uses moss as an insulating material, but also uses recycled materials in order to make it an environmentally-positive system.”

The team persevered through the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic to complete their project, which included communicating remotely with each other and their advisor, and collecting and propagating the moss since they were not able to go outside for a period of time.

Tackling climate change

moss and fishing net on top of a wooden structure

Cerwonka and Reighard created this project to fulfill two objectives related to their natural resources and environmental management program: helping to tackle climate change and solving issues at the household level.

“I don’t believe that the climate change fight is just for the governments—of course, that is something they need to handle as well—but it’s also up to us as individuals, so Jasmine and I used our ability as students to create a system like this and get some research into the effectiveness of a system like this to be implemented at the household level to battle climate change, to make our houses more energy efficient and to remediate the atmosphere,” Cerwonka said.

Future plans

While this phase of the project is complete, Cerwonka and Reighard don’t want to stop here. They plan to publish an academic paper on their findings within the next few months and hope to commercialize their innovation. The first step in commercialization is the ability to quickly and efficiently produce the “seawool” through automation and then grow the moss directly on it in large quantities.

Cerwonka and Reighard’s advisor for the project was Professor Camilo Mora from the Department of Geography and Environment in the College of Social Sciences. The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program provided $9205.49 in project funding and $809 in conference funding.

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goals of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), Building a Sustainable and Resilient Campus Environment: Within the Global Sustainability and Climate Resilience Movement (PDF) and Enhancing Student Success (PDF), three of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

—By Marc Arakaki

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