Could additive manufacturing fix coral reefs?

Rising ocean temperatures have led to bleached corals that are devastating the environment. Could producing artificial corals via additive manufacturing fix this fragile ecosystem?

Prototypes of different shape and surface have been 3D printed for trials this year in Curacao, Bahamas, Mexico and Guam - image courtesy of SECURE.
Prototypes of different shape and surface have been 3D printed for trials this year in Curacao, Bahamas, Mexico and Guam – image courtesy of SECURE.

The design of a reef is complex, and could most accurately be replicated by using additive manufacturing technologies.

Introducing this to the entire reef system across the world is time-consuming and costly though, is this really realistic?

However, one-quarter of all ocean species depend on reefs for food and shelter, and considering reefs only cover a tiny fraction (<1%) of the earth’s surface, they really are vital.

How do they form?

Coral reefs begin to form when free-swimming coral larvae attach to submerged rocks or other hard surfaces along the edges of land masses.

As the corals grow and expand, reefs take on one of three major characteristic structures; fringing, barrier or atoll. This complex system and design could be replicated most accurately by using advanced additive manufacturing technologies, as the structure and shape are finely detailed.

Given the rise of bio-printing technologies and ongoing material developments and progresses, reefs could one day also be printed using actual coral.

Ceramic 3D printed prototypes

A collaborative project between Emerging Objects, Boston Ceramics and SECORE (Sexual Coral Restoration), has created a whole population of 3D printed substrates to attract coral larvae to reefs and encourage their reproduction.

Some species of corals naturally emit ova and spermatozoa, these are being collected by SECORE, fertilized, and then raised in tanks until they become free-swimming larvae.

These larvae are then introduced into carrier units that have been created via additive manufacturing. These units attract the coral, which then attaches to it.

Once the corals are encrusted, the units are planted in reef areas requiring restoration. One of the main challenges of this project was to find the most suitable material to 3D print, that was also the right shape for optimum integration.

Prototypes of different shape and surface have been 3D printed for trials this year in Curacao, Bahamas, Mexico and Guam - image courtesy of SECURE.
Prototypes of different shape and surface have been 3D printed for trials this year in Curacao, Bahamas, Mexico and Guam – image courtesy of SECURE.

After several tests, it turned out that a type of ceramic material was most suitable, something provided by Boston Ceramics company, who is reportedly capable of carrying out this project on a large scale.

The project is an efficient solution, but implementing it would be time-consuming and costly, but if this is the only answer, the numerous negative impacts of dying corals on the environment surely make a good case for wide-scale production of 3D printed corals.

SECORE wants to produce one million 3D printed units by 2021, and hundreds of thousands of units per year by then.

Seven prototypes of different shapes and surfaces have been 3D printed for trials this year in Curacao, Bahamas, Mexico and Guam; only when the results of these trials are analysed can anyone begin to consider this an actual option.

Further from that, the project will also need funding, integration strategies and an efficient production process to make it viable.

Images all courtesy of SECURE.