Climate change, disease, pollution, unsustainable fishing, and dredging are major threats to coral reefs. The WWF states that almost 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs have already disappeared and estimates that 60 percent of them will be destroyed over the next 30 years, if no changes occur. 3D printing now offers the chance to repair the damage already done and avoid larger damage.

Biodiversity of coral reefs

Reefs contain the most diverse ecosystems on earth and protect coastlines from waves and tropical storms. Therefore it is inevitable to sustain them. Although coral reefs are naturally able to repair themselves, this can take quite long. Thus, Australian architect James Gardiner had the vision to use 3D printing technology to create modular and low-carbon structures that have the necessary characteristics to rebuild marine habitats.

In order to turn his idea into action he cooperates with David Lennon and Alex Goad from Reef Design Lab (RDL). The not-for-profit company advocates for conserving the coral reefs and works on different approaches to achieve this objective. But common artificial reefs are often block constructions of concrete or steel that mostly don’t look like real reefs at all. This is where 3D printers come into play: They can produce reefs with a more natural touch.

Building coral reefs as new homes for marine biota

Normally coral reefs form upon a foundation of calcium-rich coral skeletons. To mimic their textured surfaces James Gardiner and RDL 3D printed artificial reefs out of a unique sandstone material including built-in tunnels that serve as shelters for sea dwellers. This protects them from water currents so that they can settle on the new reefs and in turn start the food chain on the reef. Additionally 3D printed structures can replicate the colors of healthy corals that attract reef-building animals and plants.

“We believe this technology can play an important role in climate change adaption of low lying islands by cost effectively rebuilding their barrier reefs and thus reducing coastal erosion,” say the RDL founders. In fact, the first 3D printed reef was already installed in Bahrain’s Reef Arabia in 2012. It only took eight months for it to be covered in algae, sponges, and fish. Their long-term goal is to 3D print coral reefs by using local sand and to find funders for constructing a mobile 3D printing barge that can travel from island to island.

What do you think? Has 3D printing the potential to prevent the decimation of coral reefs? Tell us your opinion in a comment.