How Are 3D Printed Coral Reef Projects Revitalizing Marine Biodiversity?

Published on August 10, 2023 by Avery S.

Coral reefs stand as some of the planet’s most ancient and diverse ecosystems. Teeming with an array of organisms including corals and fish, they represent a rich haven of biodiversity. Beyond their ecological significance, they provide sustenance and economic value to millions of people worldwide. Yet, these vital ecosystems face imminent peril, primarily due to climate change, alongside local stressors such as fishing, habitat degradation, and escalating pollution. Alarmingly, projections indicate that over half of all corals could vanish within three decades, prompting the Convention on Biological Diversity to categorize them as “highly threatened with extinction.” To counteract this crisis, a solution has emerged in the form of additive manufacturing and 3D technologies.

Across industries, institutions, international bodies, and research hubs, these technologies are being harnessed to tackle the problem head-on. Notably, remarkable progress has been achieved through the 3D printing of synthetic coral reefs and the application of 3D printing techniques for safeguarding ocean biodiversity. Highlighted here are several noteworthy projects from recent years that leverage 3D technologies to champion the conservation of marine biodiversity.

D-Shape and the Hong Kong Bay Conservation Project

Italian firm D-Shape was honored with the 2022 Design for Asia Award for its custom reef design tailored for Hong Kong Bay. This initiative represents the latest step taken by the Hong Kong Airport Authority to safeguard the local marine environment. A total of one hundred artificial reef units were strategically positioned to foster the growth of a diverse community of organisms, including clams, sponges, and algae. Crafted in ring-shaped formations with holes of varying sizes, these reefs were created using 3D printing technology and a blend of quarry aggregate and cement binders. The reefs were then affixed to bamboo structures for stability underwater. As a result, the 3D printed artificial reefs are poised to provide a habitat for marine life and contribute to the restoration of the ecosystem.

(Photo credit: DFA Design for Asia Awards/D-Shape)

The Largest 3D Printed Coral Reef in the World

With 50% of reefs perishing over the last three decades, actions to counter threats like climate change, overfishing, and human-caused damage are imperative. Leveraging 3D printing technology, Australia’s Reef Design Lab has achieved a significant milestone by producing the world’s largest 3D printed artificial coral reef in the Maldives. This achievement involved creating intricate 3D molds mimicking natural reef structures, which were then cast in ceramic material akin to calcium carbonate found in actual reefs. These structures were submerged and populated with live coral, with the anticipation that they will foster new marine life and flourish as living reefs. This intersection of technology and conservation holds immense promise in safeguarding the oceans and nurturing marine biodiversity, as efforts continue to replenish these invaluable ecosystems for future generations.

3D Printed Corals for Microscopic Algae Growth

Algae and corals engage in a mutually beneficial partnership where the coral acts as a host for the algae, which reciprocates by producing sugar through photosynthesis to nourish the coral. This symbiotic collaboration is pivotal for the growth of coral reefs. Recognizing this interdependence, scientists from the University of Cambridge and the University of California San Diego have pioneered the creation of 3D printed coral structures using cutting-edge 3D bioprinting technology. These engineered coral structures facilitate the cultivation of microscopic algae. Employing exclusively biocompatible materials, the bionic corals are constructed through a blend of polymer gels and hydrogels infused with cellulose nanomaterials, accurately mimicking the composition of coral tissues. The swiftness of the 3D bioprinting process stands as a remarkable advantage, enabling the production of these structures within minutes, while ensuring the viability of the enclosed cells.

Close-up of microalgae at a scale of 10 μm (photo credit: Bionic 3D printed corals/nature communications)

How SECORE Grows Corals

Boston Ceramics and Emerging Objects have joined forces with the conservation organization SECORE (Sexual Coral Reproduction) in a collaborative initiative that centers on understanding the reproductive behaviors of coral. SECORE gathers naturally released coral eggs and sperm, nurturing them in controlled environments until they transform into buoyant larvae. Subsequently, these larvae are placed within 3D-printed constructions designed to attract and facilitate coral attachment. Once firmly affixed, these structures are strategically positioned in reef zones for the purpose of restoration. Throughout this undertaking, the structures will be crafted using a ceramic material sourced from Boston Ceramics, and the 3D printing process will be facilitated by Emerging Objects.

WWF: 3D Printed Reefs For Cod and Oyster Stock Restoration

WWF is dedicated to upholding biodiversity through various initiatives. For instance, in 2018, a strategic partnership was established between the Danish energy company Ørsted and WWF Denmark, leading to the deployment of a 3D-printed reef in the North Sea’s Kattegat region, situated between Denmark and Sweden. The principal objective was to assess the contribution of 3D-printed structures to biodiversity. The depletion of cod populations was causing disruptions in the natural food chain, prompting the creation of the 3D-printed reef to facilitate the restoration of ecological equilibrium. In Denmark, this marked the inaugural project of its kind, although WWF already possessed prior experience with 3D-printed reefs. Similar endeavors had been initiated by WWF Netherlands in collaboration with Australian firm Reef Design Lab and Italian enterprise D-Shape. In the North Sea, 3D-printed reef units were positioned to rejuvenate oyster reefs. These units, created in Rotterdam, consist of 70% sand and 30% puzzolan cement. Approximately 50 reef units measuring 50×120 cm were deployed, and ongoing monitoring persists as research advances.

Seaboost: Reef Structure For Divers In the South of France

After a span of three years dedicated to development, a fabricated village of artificial reefs produced through 3D printing was positioned in the Mediterranean Sea, near Brescou Island at Cap d’Agde in southern France during 2022. The central module, boasting dimensions of 6.5 meters in height and an area of 8×6 meters, is now situated in the marine reserve at a depth of 20 meters, accompanied by smaller secondary modules. The primary objective of this endeavor is to alleviate the strain on nature reserves caused by boat anchoring and diving activities, thus safeguarding the natural coral habitats. By facilitating exploration of this fabricated site, divers can be drawn away from sensitive natural coral sites. This initiative forms part of the national Reciflab program and was executed by the Marine Environment Department of the City of Agde, in consultation with regional diving clubs and maritime associations. Overseeing the project were Seaboost Ecological Engineering in partnership with Centrale Marseille, while specialized firms like XtreeE and CyBe Construction contributed their 3D printing expertise, using low-carbon 3D concrete to fashion the walls. The final component of the project was concluded in April 2022.

Photo credit: Seaboost, Côte Agathoise Marine Protected Area

3D Printed Robot Jellyfish

In the pursuit of marine conservation, several innovative approaches are emerging to safeguard threatened marine ecosystems like coral reefs. One such approach involves the unique creation of 3D printed robotic jellyfish, named “Jellybots,” developed by the University of Florida Atlantic and the United States Naval Research Bureau. These intricately designed robots mimic the movements of real jellyfish, enabling them to navigate confined spaces within coral reefs, collecting waste without causing harm. Acting as guardians of the oceans, the Jellybots aim to monitor and protect these fragile environments. With hydraulic tentacles powered by impeller pumps, the Jellybots gracefully maneuver through water, emulating the undulating motion of jellyfish. As this technology evolves, researchers aspire to equip these robotic sentinels with environmental sensors and advanced navigation algorithms, poised to contribute significantly to marine research and conservation efforts.

Photo credit: Erik Engeberg

archiREEF: Hexagonal Terracotta Roof Tiles Are Being Printed in Hong Kong

As a component of the archiREEF initiative aimed at coral restoration in Hong Kong’s waters, hexagonal structures composed of terracotta (clay) are fabricated using 3D printing to serve as settlement platforms for corals. The objective isn’t to replace existing coral habitats, but rather to stimulate the recolonization of these sites by the species. The choice of terracotta stems from its natural composition, reflecting biomimicry principles. The manufacturing process involved an industrial robot with six axes collaborating with a clay extruder, utilizing the Direct Ink Writing (DIW) technique.

An algorithm was employed to design the roof tiles, facilitating adaptability to diverse environments and organisms, particularly mangroves and oysters. Additive manufacturing was chosen by the archiREEF project initiators due to its capacity to incorporate site-specific parameters, fostering customization for various coral species globally. Additionally, it enables the creation of intricate forms beyond the capabilities of conventional casting methods, while also being cost and time-effective. The archiREEF project focuses on crafting precise, small-scale structures to house highly vulnerable microorganisms, thus bolstering biodiversity.

Photo credit: archiREEF

3D Printed Reefs in Dubai

Dubai, like many cities on the coast, is facing a number of challenges due to climate change including rising sea levels. As such, the city is increasingly working on marine restoration as a way to address these issues, including with reefs in the Persian Gulf. We can point notably to Dubai Reefs, an initiative led by URB which itself is a prominent player in the advancement of sustainable cities. The project hopes to enhance the coastal ecosystems of Dubai including through the creation of a 200 square kilometer artificial reef. This will be made with 3D printing in order to create different shapes and textures to better match natural environments. Bioprinting will also be used in order to develop biomaterials that can host living microalgae.

Saving the Great Barrier Reef With 3D Printing

One of the Seven Natural Wonder of the Worlds, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the major tourist destinations in Australia. However, like many other reefs around the world, it has suffered greatly in recent years, bleaching as a result of rising sea temperatures, overfishing and pollution. That is why so much research is being done to save the iconic location, including through the use of 3D printing. One specific project, funded by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, uses bioprinting to transport living cells onto 3D created models in order to regenerate new, living coral. In essence, the team uses a silicone mold made with an eco-friendly calcium carbonate ink that coral can grow on since it has a very similar surface to a coral’s skeleton. The advantage of the project is that it allows for much faster coral growth than other methods and more research is being done to see whether in the future underwater 3D printing could even be possible for even more applications.

Photo credit: Anastasia Serin, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

Coastruction Seeks to Protect Coasts

The creation of artificial reefs is one of the leading ways to address coral destruction worldwide, as we have seen elsewhere in this listing. Yet another company that is using 3D printing and sustainable materials to create 3D printed reefs is Coastruction. Though the company does not have many projects yet, it differentiates itself by only printing with natural materials, made into a dry powder mix. The printhead selectively deposits water as an activator for the resulting cement, allowing dry mix solid areas to be formed, working similar to binder jetting. The company is then able to build geometrically complex organic shapes that have been inspired by nature in order to optimize the new artificial reefs to the local environment. Already the team has installed reefs in Sardinia and the Maldives.

Photo credit: Coastruction

What do you think of these projects to rebuild coral reefs using 3D printing? Let us know in a comment below or on our LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter pages! Don’t forget to sign up for our free weekly Newsletter here, the latest 3D printing news straight to your inbox! You can also find all our videos on our YouTube channel.

Share Your Thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay Updated
Every wednesday, receive a recap of the latest 3D printing news straight to your inbox.