UN Sustainable Development Goals Addressed

  • Goal 6: Clean Water & Sanitation

2018 Global Design Challenge Finalist

This design concept was developed by participants in the Institute’s Global Design Challenge. The descriptions below are from the team’s competition entry materials.

Location: United States
Team members: InstituteElena Juodisius, Caroline Horgan, Liam Donaher, Kimberly Korioth

Concept art of layered riparian buffer with plants, like a border on a garden edge
Image: Project Team / InstaBuff / Copyright © - All rights reserved

Innovation Details

Blue-green algae blooms have been occurring in reservoirs, lakes, and oceans at increasing rates around the world. These blooms deplete oxygen in water bodies and can release and neurotoxins, as well as negatively impact ecosystems, health, recreation opportunities, and drinking water supplies. InstaBuff is a layered mat inspired by several organisms that filters nutrients, holds water, collects sediment and promotes plant growth.


What problem does the solution solve? Our innovation targets the mitigation of nutrient loading in water bodies, which leads to toxic blue-green algae blooms. One of the best existing strategies is the creation of riparian buffers, but the challenges of erosion control, installation costs, and time for ecological services to mature are major deterrents of its use on a larger scale. Our strategy with the Instabuff will hopefully create a more robust riparian buffer that effectively prevents erosion and retains nutrient runoff immediately after installation, and is cheaper and easier to install.


What is the technology and how does it work? The Instabuff is a biodegradable, roll-out mat with seeds incorporated into the fabric, along with phosphorus-absorbing and water-retaining compounds. The geometry of the material is formed specifically to capture water and nutrients to facilitate growth of riparian plants, and to biodegrade upon maturation of the buffer plants. It aims to be a cost-effective way to install a riparian buffer to mitigate erosion and nutrient loading.


How it is biomimetic? An objective from the beginning was to intercept storm water before it enters a water body in order to filter out phosphorus. Originally we explored ways plants and animals maximize surface area, like corals that filter feed through the water column, but eventually discovered the giant lobelia (Lobelia keniensis) and some bromeliads whose leaf structure holds the water itself. Focusing on water retention as opposed to filtration allows for greater volume of stormwater to be intercepted and nutrients to be absorbed. In addition to be perfectly formed for these functions, the rosettes of these plants grow flat against the stem, and by unrolling our material in a similar way, the Instabuff can maximize manufacturing and installation efficiency as well.


What is the solution’s impact? We hope to improve upon the existing strategy of combating nutrient loading (i.e. riparian buffers) to be more effective and cost-efficient. Traditional riparian buffers take months or years to mature, but by improving water retention and phosphorus absorption with the Instabuff upon installation, it can immediately start combating nutrient loading. Affordability of manufacturing and especially installation will hopefully incentivize more widespread implementation, which is crucial to combating nutrient loading in larger water bodies.