Oct 22, 2015 | By Kira

In sad yet un-surprising news earlier this month, scientists confirmed that the third-ever global bleaching of coral reefs is under way, and that it could be the biggest coral die-off in history. Those beautiful, multicolor calcium carbonate structures that line our ocean floors don’t just make great scuba-diving photos—they form some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, nurture 25% of the world’s marine species, and are essential to populations who rely on coral ecosystems for their food and livelihood. Nearly all of that is at risk, however, as a massive underwater heat wave driven primarily by climate change is causing epidemic coral bleaching, whereby the reefs lose their colour and die. Since the 1980s, the world has lost roughly half its coral reefs, and by the end of this year, scientists estimate another 5% will have died permanently.

Before and after images of coral bleaching, via The Guardian

With immediate and strong action, however, there is hope that coral reefs could find a way to rebound. These actions include stricter government regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, overfishing, and water pollution, which could take years to implement. However in the shorter-term, 3D printing technology just might be the answer.  At the Larvotto Marine Reserve in Monaco, home to hundreds of diverse plants and water animals, six new 3D printed coral reefs have just been revealed that, once submerged 27 meters below the water’s surface, promise to maintain biodiversity and allow marine life to thrive, restoring hope that our ocean life can still be saved.

Created by the Dutch maritime services company Boskalis in collaboration with Monaco’s Prince Albert II Foundation, the six reefs measure 1.2 x 2 meters each, and weigh an astounding 2.5 tons. The idea is that they can be placed on the marine reserve's floor, allowing scientists to carefully study and compare the ecological development of these artificial reefs versus natural ones.

While the concept of artificial reef ecosystems already exists, they are traditionally made from concrete poured into a mould, and lack the complexity of caves and connecting tunnels that appear in natural reefs, prohibiting wildlife from safely settling in. What makes these reefs stand apart is that rather than concrete, they were 3D printed with actual sand, allowing them to better mimic natural formations. Initial tests have shown that compared to the concrete versions, marine life quickly appropriated the sand-based constructions. Each reef required 13 hours of printing on a machine installed in Italy, using natural sand from the Dolomites.

“Scientists drew the curves and cavities of the reefs, adapting them to the specific marine species. The goal is for the biodiversity in these waters to appropriate the reefs and colonize them as they do in nature,” said Philippe Mondielli, scientific director the Prince Albert II Foundation. Opened in 2006, the Foundation works to protect the environment and promote sustainable development on a global scale through public and private research and initiatives.

“It’s an innovative device for helping improve or restore ruined marine areas,” said Bernard Fautrier, VP of the Foundation, during the unveiling of the reefs yesterday. “We intend to duplicate this experience in other sites.” Boskalis donated all six reefs to the Larvotto Marine Reserve, however the cost of designing and printing was not disclosed.

A few years ago, an Australian-Bahraini team produced the world's first 3D printed reefs with the same intentions, showing that the technology can be duplicated around the world and implemented in various conditions. Nevertheless, these 3D printed reefs are just the beginning of a long but necessary process to restore our coral reefs and thereby save marine biodiversity, which will require immediate and strong actions to reduce emissions and overfishing on a global scale.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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Kira wrote at 10/31/2015 2:20:19 PM:

Hi Dr Molenaar--thank you for pointing out your observations about the confusions. I've clarified within the article that the 3D printed reefs are not meant to actually replace coral reefs, but that they can provide an alternative for natural reefs, and that the artificial reefs will be studied next to natural reefs in order for scientists to understand and compare ecological development.

Kira wrote at 10/31/2015 2:17:56 PM:

Robert--thanks for the article about sunscreen! I had no idea about that, and it really makes me wonder what else we are inadvertently doing that may seem "good" for us but is actually harming the environment even more.

Braeden Gorden Wiggins wrote at 10/29/2015 5:49:23 PM:

I do hope that we do save reefs around the world.

Mason wrote at 10/29/2015 5:44:13 PM:

Really interesting and fun to read about how they make coral reefs out of 3D printing. Cool to read about it!!

Dr Heike Molenaar wrote at 10/28/2015 7:32:34 PM:

In the above article the autor made a lot of big confusions : - first, he confused the mediterranean Paramuricea clavata colonial gorgonia and the tropical coral reefs in the two presented photographs ???????? and - second he confused coral reef with artificial reef that only create a substract for animals and algae and that never have the vocation to replace coral reef (that don't exist in Mediterranean sea) ????????????

Kathryn Marshall wrote at 10/26/2015 4:44:18 AM:

Could these reefs be printed from Calcium Carbonate instead of sand? I have one innovative idea for removing co2 from the air using 3D printers which I have submitted to parties whom I hope will further my thinking. If more Calcium Carbonate is also added to the sea, using 3D printers, that also improves the acidification problem. With time there will be a cumulative adding of each of these inputs.

Robert McGowan wrote at 10/24/2015 5:56:05 AM:

I saw a article that attributed another factor for coral reef dying:- Suntan lotion getting into the sea. Not sure how trustworthy it is but as I'm sure the author us this article might be interested in looking into it:- http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/21/sunscreen-contributing-to-decline-of-coral-reefs-study-shows

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