Posted in | 3D Printing

How are 3D Printers Being Used to Save Our Coral Reefs?

Coral reefs all over the world are in constant danger and suffer enormous damage, which leads to them eventually dying. Whether it be from the exploits of human-kind or so-called natural causes, increases in chemicals from the use of sunscreens and industrial pollution, as well as fishing practices such as dynamite or cynanide fishing, the damage is irreversible. Furthermore, with the current climate crisis, the warming of the ocean’s waters and any further rise of the Earth’s average temperature will almost certainly lead to the complete loss of the remaining coral reef.

Image credit: Ethan Daniels / Shutterstock.com

However, with several projects already underway to provide a solution to this impending catastrophe, 3D-printed technology is being used to create artificial coral structures off the coast of Eilat, Israel. Scientists and researchers across three universities have collaborated on this project, which they hope will attract the important species of fish in an attempt to reconstruct the now barren reefs along the coast.

Developed by the team from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Bar-Ilan University, the 3D printer uses a biodegradable and bio-active bio-plastic called polyactic acid, which can be made from corn, sugarcane or cassava. Using this material and technology, the team were able to build column-like structures that are then installed into the water.

During installation, these columns are placed individually with farmed coral which should, in theory, simulate the complex ecosystems found in a coral reef. The scientists are already experimenting with various shapes and colors as they fine tune their material and work towards a final design – already the team have found that preferences of fish species can differ.

As a research group that is composed of marine biologists and designers, we seek to find the next practices and tools to explore ecological functionality of coral morphology,” the researchers said.

We believe that coral reef rehabilitation and management as well as artificial reef construction require better understanding of how the single coral colony morphology interacts with its inhabitants.

Researchers at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Bar-Ilan University

This study and research is of great importance due to the fact that, as the world deals with various effects and fallout of the current climate crisis, coral reefs are not only important habitats for a large number of fish species, but also around 1 billion people rely on coral reefs everyday as they are an integral as a source of food, industry and also protect coastlines from the damaging effects of erosion caused by wave action and tropical storms.

Over 30-50% of total reef formations found off the Coral Sea coast of Australia were lost in heatwaves in 2016 and 2017. This was a result of water temperatures rising so high that most of the coral polyps that live in and sustain life on the reefs begin to expel the algae important to the entire ecosystem – the resulting disaster is referred to as coral bleaching. While some reefs do recover from this phenonomen, often the reef’s ecosystem begins to starve and die altogether, which makes this recent breakthrough all the more urgent and necessary.

The biological results of the research need to be processed and analyzed further before they can be published. Yet, the design part of the process terminated with the second phase, in which 20 objects were installed in the Red Sea for observation. Initial results show that fish and invertebrates are using the 3D-printed corals and finding them a good ‘home’ that they trust laying their eggs [in].

Researchers at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Bar-Ilan University

This latest research could prove to be vital for further developing how 3D scanning and print technology can create the necessary environment in the attempt to restore the reefs and assist the revival of ecosystems and the fish essential to a healthy biodiversity. Thus, the Israeli team’s research and their 3D printing technology should offer a new hope in the desire to save the coral reefs of the world.

David J. Cross, M.A

Written by

David J. Cross, M.A

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.

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