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AMS Spring 2023

What is the Outlook for Restoring Coral Reefs Through 3D Printing?

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Coral reefs are some of the world’s most important but vulnerable ecosystems on the planet. Reefs are home to 25% of marine species and play a vital role in coastal safety, but they’re rapidly shrinking and dying as a result of habitat destruction and climate change. 3D printing may present a solution.

Artificial reefs are a common restoration technique. Providing spaces for coral to latch onto and grow helps foster reef development and 3D printing has emerged as a promising method for creating these anchor points. Here’s a closer look at the state of 3D printing reef restoration and where it could go from here.

Benefits of 3D Printing Artificial Reefs

Creating artificial reefs to encourage coral growth is nothing new, but traditional approaches aren’t perfect. While sinking old ships and placing concrete underwater can work, these structures may not mimic local coral species’ ideal shelters. 3D printing allows conservationists to design artificial reefs with shapes and textures identical to natural underwater landscapes.

This customizability can also help meet varying needs between different geographies. The reefs in coastal lagoons — which account for more than 10% of land-sea interfaces — may not look like those in deeper areas. With 3D printing, organizations can create different artificial reef designs to match each ecosystem’s natural environment.

3D printing also has cost and efficiency advantages. Additive manufacturing is famously more resource-efficient and less time-consuming than conventional production methods. As a result, 3D-printed artificial reefs could lower the end costs and project timelines for reef restoration initiatives.

Current 3D Printing Reef Initiatives

Many organizations have already realized and started to act on these benefits. The largest artificial reef in the Maldives relied on 3D printing to produce molds for concrete components. Smaller-scale projects have shown significant promise, too.

The world’s largest artificial reef, made from concrete elements cast from 3D printed molds. Image courtesy of Reef Design Lab.

Researchers in Hong Kong have planted 3D printed clay tiles along seafloors to encourage reef growth. These specially designed elements contain many perforations to prevent sediment buildup in the same areas corals latch onto. This prevents sedimentation, which can suffocate corals when it builds up.

Several other initiatives apply similar approaches across the globe. From the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to Denmark, non-profits, researchers, and businesses are planting 3D-printed structures in warming waters to encourage coral growth.

Clay tiles 3D printed by the University of Hong Kong to stimulate coral growth. Image courtesy of the University of Hong Kong.

Other projects aim to 3D print reef structures on-site, reducing transportation needs. While these initiatives are relatively small, they’re growing. As they gain more traction, they could make the already respectable practice of 3D printing reef restoration even more sustainable and efficient.

Limitations and Challenges

While the growing state of 3D printing coral restoration is promising, several challenges remain. Most importantly, regardless of how much these projects grow, they’re not a final solution. 3D-printed structures can foster development but don’t address the root causes of coral loss.

Coral bleaching will still destroy much of the reefs even if all climate change stops now. Making up for those losses will require a scale that may not be feasible with 3D printing. Additive manufacturing typically works best on a relatively small scale and the world’s dead reefs span considerable distances. Given the fact that 3D printing artificial reefs is also relatively new, it’s difficult to know just how successful such projects are as of yet.

These limitations and challenges don’t render 3D printing reef restoration futile, but they do put it into perspective. It’s essential to see these initiatives as small steps to a larger goal instead of the end-all of marine habitat protection.

Future Possibilities

While significant obstacles remain, the future of restoring coral reefs through 3D printing looks bright. Several recent advancements could help take the practice further, leading to more effective efforts.

One of the most significant current areas of research is bioprinting. Researchers have developed 3D-printed biomaterials that can host living microalgae as coral does. This innovation makes it easier to observe these crucial relationships to understand how coral reefs grow and develop, leading to better conservation efforts. Printing artificial reefs with similar materials could also foster faster regrowth.

Close up of coral polyps and living photosynthetic biomaterials. Living colonies of Symbiodinium are visible within the 3D bioprinted tissues (Credit: Daniel Wangpraseurt)

Similar processes print with calcium carbonate — a crucial building block for corals’ hard exteriors. With more research, scientists may be able to create novel printing materials with the proper nutrients to accelerate coral growth and increase reef resilience.

3D Printing Can Help Restore Reefs Despite Challenges

Artificial reef printing may not be a perfect solution, but it’s a vital step in the broader fight against climate change. While this practice predates 3D printing, additive manufacturing can take it further.

3D printing reef projects today show encouraging signs of growth and development. As more of these initiatives work worldwide, researchers can learn more about and protect these vital ecosystems.

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