A renovated port near downtown Rio de Janeiro will do more than offer a place for ships to load and unload goods: It’s designed as a waterfront destination for residents and visitors alike. A highlight of the revitalized port area will be a 27,000-square-meter aquarium near Guanabara Bay named AquaRio. The aquarium will be home to 12,000 fish from 400 different freshwater and saltwater species, including sharks and rays. Many of them will swim around to visitors’ “oohs” and “ahhs” in tanks constructed from GFRP sandwich panels.

Barracuda Advanced Composites in Rio de Janeiro designed 27 GFRP tanks made with fiberglass fabric, vinylester resins and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) foam cores. Tank shapes and sizes will vary, with the average tank holding 60 cubic meters of water. The capacity of the shark tank, made of concrete with a GFRP/vinylester liner, is 3,000 cubic meters.

Barracuda was commissioned to design the AquaRio tanks in March. The company has provided composite engineering for two other Brazilian aquariums, though nowhere near as large or complex. AquaRio will be located in an old four-story customs warehouse. “They will keep the original 1920s’ façade,” says Jorge Nasseh, CEO of Barracuda Advanced Composites and chief engineer on the aquarium project. “The contractors are rebuilding the interior floors to add the tanks and other areas for biology research, classes and movies.”

Locating the aquarium in a century-old building created challenges for contractors – and opened up an opportunity for lightweight composites. The aquarium architect, a Brazilian company with expertise in marine biology, originally suggested the tanks be made from steel and concrete, but soon realized those materials would not work. “The weight of the tanks was very important because they need to move the tanks to the third and fourth floors,” says Nasseh. Composites were a great solution. In addition, the GFRP panels, which are finished with an impervious gel coat, are an ideal material for water applications.

Barracuda relied on finite element analysis to ensure its tank designs could withstand fluid flow, water pressure, temperatures inside and outside the tank and other physical factors. The results helped Barracuda and M-Mold, the company building the tanks, decide on details such as fabric selection. The inner and outer skins of the panels are made from 24-ounce quadraxial fabric. The multiaxial reinforcement is well-suited for the project because it allows multiple plies to be positioned correctly, quickly and easily. It’s also a good match for vacuum infusion, the fabrication method used to produce the tanks.