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Will 3D Printed Coral Reefs Help Save the Marine Ecosystem?

ST Medical Devices

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16283588090_2edd0eeb80As a native Floridian (yes, they really do exist) with a long family history in the Florida Keys, I am always interested to hear about any program being established to help the massive issues surrounding our rapidly disappearing coral reefs.

Did you know that these large, rough slabs of what appear to be white rock are actually teeming with life? Resting atop the many layers of the calcium carbonate skeleton is another large and living layer of coral polyps—necessary to the survival and propagation of the reefs.

While most of us understand the importance of coral reefs, some may be very surprised to find out just how very crucial they are—and that information makes it all the more heartbreaking to see damage being done to them as we humans continue our busy work in terms of infrastructure, wastewater projects, beach nourishing and more—not to mention the damage caused by boats, tourists touching and kicking coral with fins, as well as issues caused by fishing line and equipment.


A coral polyp

Bleaching is also a major issue and cause of decline in coral reefs—brought about by mother nature herself when water temperatures are unusually warm for an unusually long period of time. Even if that’s just by a degree or two, it can have enormous repercussions as it causes the coral to starve—and fish to flee. What’s left behind is a dismal, colorless graveyard—and no place for nurturing marine life whatsoever.

“We are currently experiencing the longest global coral bleaching event ever observed,” says Mark Eakin of NOAA—and the problem is expected to continue through next year.

It’s amazing to think that these incredible ecosystems make up such a tiny part of our world, at .0025 percent. But in the small amount of ocean floor that they cover, they provide a home to 25 percent of marine life. This makes them responsible for over $6.7 trillion of the annual global economy. Not only that, but coral reefs are responsible for 17 percent of protein that is consumed around the world, and in areas like Fiji and the Maldives—as much as 70 percent.

We can’t control natural events, but we can work on controlling the man-made ones—as well as creating methods to help. And this is where technology comes into play as 3D printed reefs are being introduced and examined for true efficacy. Currently the only 3D printed reef is implanted in the Persian Gulf, sunk there in 2012. Fabricated in sandstone and of course designed to look real, it was placed in a coastal area off Bahrain as the only one 3D printed piece of coral among 2,620 others, which were constructed from molded concrete. This project is all part of trying to attract marine line back to overfished and overpolluted areas, but scientists and others question what real good these artificial reefs will actually do in the long run.

Only attracting a small percentage of specific fish, 3D printed and artificial reefs can also provide dwellings for algae, anemones, octopuses, and crabs—but the key is that if a 3D printed surface can attract free-floating baby coral polyps, they may one day begin to cover the artificial surface itself, thus ‘growing.’ And if scientists see them working successfully, more could be implanted in the oceans.

Arabia-3D-Printed-Coarl-Reef-Top-537x358This concern is being well considered by many marine scientists, as well as the team from Reef Design Labs soon to release a new product. Their 3D printed coral is made with a porcelain coating that has indentations and a fabricated chemistry much more like coral. The hope is that this will indeed attract baby coral polyps.

“They can bounce back from disruption. They can bounce back from mortality,” says Gabriel Grimsditch, the senior project officer at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, involved in the development of coral-reef management plans.

Historically, coral reefs have shown some impressive resilience but growth takes an excruciatingly long time to the tune of .02 to 8 inches per year, and it’s hoped that we can prod this along with 3D printing and taking control of what actually can be eliminated, like overfishing, infrastructure infringement, and more. Some coral has been found to be more adaptive than others in terms of temperature and acidity and this may be very positive in the future for growth of those types.

We’ve followed other stories regarding 3D printed coral reef, being used not only to collect data but to allow for projects where the public can download files and print their own pieces, bringing public awareness to the issue—and that’s a huge way to help with damage as well so that tourists know to watch out when boating, diving, and fishing.


An example of bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef.

Because one coral is composed of what can feasibly be thousands of polyps that land and plant themselves for life, it’s hoped that if they can indeed make the 3D printed reefs attractive enough, they will plant themselves and cover the fabricated surface, thus beginning a colony—and a true new beginning for a part of nature that is declined at a terrifying rate.

It’s hoped that 3D printed reefs can offer real change and establish real growth along with helping with issues due to carbon use worldwide, as new constructions attract the floating polyps looking for a home, but if not, the 3D prints and concrete pieces will indeed just serve as fake homes for marine life—and at least they will be given more of a chance.

“Let’s focus on the factors we can manage and help reefs be more resilient,” said Grimsditch. “If 3D printing helps, that’s great.”

Do you think technology will be there answer here? Discuss in the 3D Printed Coral Reef forum over at

[Source: The Atlantic]


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