New Lego-like method for 3D printing coral reefs could save natural habitats

Previous studies have warned that coral reefs could be extinct by 2100.
Loukia Papadopoulos
3D printed coral reefs.
3D printed coral reefs.

Chulalongkorn University 

Coral reefs have been decimated everywhere, and scientists have come up with some pretty impressive solutions.

The latest such initiative comes out of the Thai university Chulalongkorn, according to a press release published by the institution last week.

Methods and results

“In nature conservation, methods are as important as results,” noted Associate Professor Dr. Nantarika Chansue, Director of the Veterinary Medical Aquatic Animal Research Center of Excellence at Chulalongkorn University.

The researchers have created a new 3D printing technique for coral reefs modeled on the nature of real corals called Innovareef. Innovareef corals are coated with calcium and phosphate nutrients that corals need to thrive and consist of flat surfaces that can accommodate the settlement of planula.

New Lego-like method for 3D printing coral reefs could save natural habitats
3D printed coral reefs

The reefs’ holes and cavities serve as habitats and hiding places for fish, benthic animals, and marine invertebrates. The artificial reefs also make use of hydrodynamics technology to enhance their resistance to tidal forces and ensure that they stay in place.

Finally, the pH (level of acidity) of the selected type of cement used for the reefs is close to that of seawater, and the design concept is that of Lego, easily assembled and disassembled blocks that are easy to transport and install.

The end result is artificial reefs that are very efficient and reliable.

“The Innovareef is not too large. It’s light-weighted and can be carried by anyone thus saving transportation costs. You can simply put it at any desired location in the sea and then dive down to put all the units together to complete the Innovareef,” said Nantarika.

“Not even five minutes afterward, fish and several marine creatures start to come in to survey and make it their new habitat, leading to biodiversity around the Innovareef. More importantly, the post-installation data indicates that the settlement and growth rates of planula on the Innovareef are better than those on other artificial reefs.”

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The researcher further argues that Innovareef formations can be developed into eco-tourism attractions.

“Coral reef tourists who’re not yet qualified divers and may unintentionally damage natural coral reefs, new divers or others who want to study the undersea world, including sea walkers and snorkelers, can dive to Innovareef formations. They’re very lifelike, and a variety of marine species live there. This is an example of marine eco-tourism that’s causing no harm to the sea,” Nantarika added.

New Lego-like method for 3D printing coral reefs could save natural habitats
The Innovareef parts

Now the team is focused on lowering production costs and adding more details so that the new structures look more like natural reefs.

“For the next generations of Innovareef, we’ll come up with a more specific design for each marine species in the area. For example, giant groupers prefer cave-like habitats and so will our Innovareef be,’ Nantarika explained.

She adds that her team is currently working with Chula’s Faculty of Engineering in incorporating nanotechnology for protecting the Innovareef from global warming effects.

“If the sea temperature rises to a certain level that’s harmful to the corals, the nanoparticle coating the Innovareef will automatically activate and release a substance to prevent the corals from dying,” concluded Nantarika.

Previous studies have warned that coral reefs could be extinct by 2100.

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