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Coral reefs are the most diverse of all marine ecosystems and up to a quarter of all ocean species depend on them for food and shelter. However, according to the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation,around 25 percent of the planet’s coral reefs have already disappeared and anestimated two-thirds of all coral reefs are currently at risk. In Southeast Asia specifically – home to the most species rich reefs on earth – 88 percent  of reefs are facing extinction. Let that sink in for a moment.

Threats to these precious ecosystems include pollution, disease, over fishing, sedimentation and bleaching. Rising ocean temperatures stress corals and cause them to eject the algal cells living within them, which they rely on to produce energy. Prolonged separation kills both the coral and algae, leaving nothing but a bone-white skeleton. Various initiatives are making impressive strides in this vital area however, with the goal of preserving and growing new reefs while protecting the species that rely on them so intrinsically. What’s more, 3D printing is playing an integral role in such developments.

A 3D printed coral reef.

I sat down with The Reef Design Lab’s industrial designer Alex Goad, who has created the largest 3D printed coral reef to date at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. At the end of summer 2018, the new reef was settled near Summer Island in the Maldives. If the project is successful, we could see a new natural reef within the next 1-2 years.

If it can be
done once, it can be done again and again.

The Concept and Implementing the Design

Australian entrepreneur Alex, who studied industrial design at university, said he always had an interest in architecture and fine art. Those passions naturally led him to spearheading a project which combined practicality and the preservation of beauty.

“I designed MARS (Modular Artificial Reef Structure) during my final year at university because I was interested in the coral farming area and wanted to contribute to it. There was also a lack of innovation in the design of artificial reef structures and I thought it was an interesting area to investigate. I’m also fascinated by the ocean so it’s not hard to be motivated when you’re designing a project that allows you to be so involved.”

The Summer Island reef was designed using an advanced computer modeling program. Once the modeling work was complete, a 3D printer was used to print 220 moulds – which took just 24 hours thanks to the advanced technology. The reef itself is a composite construction of cast ceramic reinforced with marine concrete and stainless steel. Ceramic works so well, Alex explained, because it has properties similar to the calcium carbonate within natural reefs.

The new reef has been placed seven metres below the ocean surface, near an existing coral nursery. Coral fragments were taken from the nursery and placed on the 3D printed reef. The team hopes that in a year or two, these corals will colonize the new structure.

Challenges and Rewards

DevelopingMARS hasn’t always been plain sailing. Indeed, Alex spoke of the many challenges faced developing marine habitat infrastructure.

“You’re building in one of the most corrosive environments, so you’re very limited to the materials you can use. Working underwater is also relatively dangerous and limits how you can solve problems when they arise. During the MARS install on Summer Island, for example, it was the first time I had installed the MARS system at that scale and was slightly worried about the precision needed for everything to come together. I had run the build simulation multiple times on the computer but building something in real life is very different. “

Luckily the system went together perfectly. Seeing how the structure has already started to change and morph with the environment has been one of the most rewarding aspects of working on the project so far, Alex added.

“It’s also amazing to see how different animals use the system too,” he said.

3D Printing: Changing the World

Speaking more generally on how 3D printing has impacted the world of design, engineering and technology, Alex said it’s enabling us to experiment in ways we never could have imagined.

“3D printing has sped up everything we do [at our studio] meaning we can spend more time working with scientists on research projects and experimenting with new ideas. There’s a huge range of 3D printing technology that can be used for marine habitat infrastructure. I’m personally very interested in how we can combine the use of desktop 3D printing with traditional fabrication techniques and the MARS system is a good example of that.

“For what I do, it’s critical to understand how 3D printing fits into the overall project objective and how to utilize it correctly while combining it with traditional building/manufacturing techniques.”

Going into the Future

3D printing could undoubtedly be a “more effective way to grow and restore corals” going into the future, Alex said.

“It helps us to mimic the complexity of natural reef structures, so we can design artificial reefs that look a lot like the natural ones. I think we will see more large scale marine habitat infrastructure utilizing 3D printing but my hope is that it is always done with research in mind.”

Given that if the current rate of degradation and die-off continues, coral reefs could completely disappear in just 20 or 30 years, this technology seems not onlyimpressive but vital.

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