Across the globe, a number of initiatives have been exploring the use of 3D printing to help preserve the delicate and quickly disappearing coral reefs. Now, in an exciting development, the world’s largest 3D printed coral reef has been submerged at Summer Island Maldives, a vacation resort on the Indian Ocean nation.
Global warming is having drastic effects on most of the world’s ecosystems, but perhaps none is deteriorating as quickly as the world’s coral reefs. The delicate ecosystems, which are home to varied aquatic species—from algae and invertebrates to fish and sea birds—have suffered from a phenomenon called bleaching, which is when coral polyps reject the algae that live inside their tissues and that is caused by increasing sea temperatures.
In a bid to curb the destruction of these rich underwater ecosystems, certain groups have been exploring the potential of 3D printing artificial reefs to encourage the growth of natural coral and sustain the species that depend on it for protection.
One of those groups is the Melbourne-based Reef Design Lab, which is now responsible for installing the world’s largest 3D printed coral reef in the Maldives. The artificial reef, designed by Reef Design Lab industrial designer Alex Goad, consists of hundreds of ceramic and concrete modules, each designed to look and feel like real coral.
To achieve the authentic coral-look, which includes internal channels and a textured surface, Goad used a sophisticated computing modeling program to 3D model the 3D printed coral reef. When the designs were complete, a 3D printer went to work printing out 220 molds of the reef structures.
The 3D printed molds were then cast in ceramic, an inert material which displays similar properties to the calcium carbonate that makes up coral reefs. The ceramic molds were then shipped from Australia to the Maldives, where they were filled with concrete, assembled and submerged at Summer Island’s “Blue Lagoon,” a sandy area of the resort’s lagoon where it is hoping to establish a coral reef ecosystem.
The 3D printed reef now lives under seven meters of water and is located near to the resort’s existing coral nursery. To encourage the growth of the new reef, fragments of the coral from the nursery will be transplanted into the 3D printed coral with the hope that it will grow into and onto the ceramic-concrete structure.
“3D printing technology helps us to develop more innovative ways of protecting coral reefs,” explained Goad. “The technology allows us to mimic the complexity of natural reef structures, so we can design artificial reefs that closely resemble those found in nature. We hope this will be a more effective way of growing and restoring corals.”
In terms of the timeline, the Reef Design Lab and Summer Island Maldives resort say that if the project is a success, we could see a new, natural looking reef within just a year or two. Moreover, if the project goes well, 3D printing could be increasingly implemented to promote the growth and preservation of coral reefs.
It was no coincidence that the Reef Design Lab teamed up with a Maldives resort to test out its 3D printed coral reef; the Maldives, a nation made up of over 1,000 coral islands, is one of the most climate-vulnerable places in the world. In addition to the 3D printed coral initiative, the nation has also introduced a number of other environmental projects, including the adoption of solar energy, a phasing out of imported drinking water and more.
“Projects like the 3D printed reef are popular among guests, who like that we protect our environment,” added Mari Shareef, Summer Island Resort Manager. “And it’s not only for the guests. Our staff, most of whom are Maldivian, want to protect their environment. Ultimately, we want to help promote a culture of environmental stewardship, not just at Summer Island, but across the Maldives.”
In addition to 3D printing coral reefs for environmental sustainability, here are some other ways that 3D printing is positively impacting the world.