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AMS Spring 2023

NOAA Uses Formlabs 3D Printers to Create New Resilient Corals Species


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Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) are using Formlabs 3D printers to create a resilient new species of corals that can better withstand the ocean’s changing conditions. As part of its ongoing coral research, the NOAA team relies on innovative methods to survey coral in the wild, reproduce certain conditions under controlled lab settings, and cultivate new species of coral.

3D Printing Tough Marine Parts

Marine biologist Nate Formel and his colleagues at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) rely on four stereolithography (SLA) printers, Formlabs’ Form 2 and Form 3, as well as the brand’s Fuse 1 selective laser sintering (SLS) machine. With these tools they print heavy-duty sampler housings, jigs for experimental sensors and equipment, and customized components for their in-house aquaria structures built to study coral fitness and methods to enhance coral resilience in the face of rising water temperatures and extreme conditions of the changing climate.

To achieve repeatable, customized parts for coral reef research and monitoring, the NOAA researchers chose 3D printing over traditional manufacturing methods to speed up the process and reduce costs. The key to their work is developing waterproof parts that tolerate harsh ocean conditions. This, however, can be expensive. For example, subsurface automated samplers (SAS) used to continuously check ocean water conditions to ensure that water temperature, acidity, light, and flow rate are the same in the lab can cost more than $1,000 to manufacture. Instead, 3D printing cuts the price down significantly to $220, allowing NOAA to maintain the desired complexity of their research for a fraction of the cost. In addition, lab equipment like automatic feeders and stir-plates are also 3D printed to hold up to water splashes and corrosive salt air.

Furthermore, with more affordable methods and less effort, NOAA can replicate their testing more within their labs. By making their 3D printed designs open source, researchers worldwide can use the same technology. Since more labs are replicating this research, NOAA gathers more robust data to develop new coral species more effectively.

Subsurface Automated Sampler for eDNA (SASe) with SLA end-caps, sample cartridge, and internal armature. Image courtesy of NOAA/AOML.

Restoring Ocean Habitats

Just like reforestation is essential to help preserve wildlife, coral restoration is a precious habitat for fish and other marine species, and helps protect coastal infrastructure, especially since the planet has lost half of its coral reefs since 1950. If climate change continues at its current rate and without significant intervention, tropical reef ecosystems could face global extinction by the end of the century.

To fight the effects of climate change, researchers worldwide are employing novel and innovative techniques that can help re-establish the coral reef ecosystems. One such example is the work being done by marine biologist Daniel Wangpraseurt from the University of California San Diego (UCSD)’s Department of NanoEngineering. By turning to bioprinting, Wangpraseurt developed bionic 3D printed corals. Also, in California, design technologist Alex Schofield uses 3D printing to help save the marine ecosystem by restoring coral reefs that have been negatively impacted by overfishing, pollution, and climate change. Today, many scientists are exploring ways to use 3D printing to create spaces for new coral to thrive.

As colonial organisms, corals are typically made up of thousands or hundreds of thousands of individual polyps, each with a complex consortium of microorganisms that contribute to their health and nutrition. In addition, reef-building corals secrete calcium carbonate, a hard rock-like material that comprises structures commonly known as reef frameworks or habitats. This habitat and the reef ecosystem it supports are precious, hosting the single highest concentration of biodiversity in the marine realm. Not only are they elemental for underwater life, but corals are also extremely valuable to the U.S. economy by helping support fisheries and tourism and protecting shorelines from wave energy and storms.

At the Experimental Reef Lab, each tank has specific controls and requires a customized electronics casing. Image courtesy of NOAA/AOML.

NOAA’s Advanced Manufacturing and Design Lab

Understanding the responses of corals and reef biota to global change is essential to the work at NOAA’s AOML, and leading the way is Coral Program’s principal investigator Ian Enochs. Headquartered in Miami, Florida, the marine biologist is spearheading NOAA’s Advanced Manufacturing and Design Lab, which has plenty of tools for researchers, including the suite of Formlabs printers. Through 3D printing, researchers at AOML can quickly prototype and test new applications to assist with their research goals. In fact, operating Formlabs printers has helped standardize and improve their experiments’ accuracy and comparability and facilitated the development of new technologies.

To identify characteristics of coral that will thrive in new, more extreme marine environments, Formel, Enochs, and their colleagues look for coral that is currently thriving under conditions expected in a more acidified ocean, like those near volcanic vents. For the task, the team created a SAS to collect water samples on coral reefs to help understand the intensity and variability of the conditions in which these corals live. They even made the design of these samplers open source so other groups worldwide could use this tool and used 3D printing to keep down sampler costs and allow the construction and deployment of many samplers without large funding budgets. In addition, the automation allows for synchronized sampling to give researchers an idea of precisely what’s happening in the water at different times or locations.

Subsurface Automated water Samplers (SAS) Deployment at Dry Tortugas. Subsurface Automated water Samplers (SAS) Deployment at Dry Tortugas. Image courtesy of NOAA/AOML.

According to Formel, “the automation of sampling was an appealing idea to improve our science and improve the ease of carrying out that science. You can have a synchronized sampling time that shows exactly what’s happening in the water chemistry at different sites.”

This is just one of the many projects at NOAA’s AOML Advanced Manufacturing and Design Lab. Formel and Enochs also use 3D printing for environmental DNA samplers for DNA sampling in the water column, a submersible incubation chamber for respiration and calcification analysis, and more.

Feature image courtesy of NOAA.

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