World's Largest 3D-Printed Reef Installed in the Maldives

Coral fragments grown on the existing coral nursery were transplanted onto the 3D reef and in a few years, the coral fragments are expected to colonize the structure.

Sep 23, 2018

Does 3D printing have the potential to save the world’s coral reef? Researchers and designers behind an experimental project in the Maldives will soon find out.

In an effort to promote coral growth and biodiversity, a design lab has teamed up with researchers to create the world’s largest 3D printed reef. On August 11, 2018, the project installed an artificial coral reef comprised of hundreds of ceramic and concrete modules at Summer Island, a holiday resort in the Maldives.

Working closely with researchers, The Reef Design Lab, based in Melbourne, Australia, uses 3D printing to mimic the geometric complexity of marine habitat infrastructures like those of coral reefs. Their lab creates modular structures for environmental conservation and restoration, specifically for coral farming as well as the recreation of seawalls and wave break structures to prevent the erosion of mangrove forests.

In this experimental project, designers from The Reef Design Lab used computer modeling to create faux reef structures resembling those found in the Maldives. The 3D molds took over 24 hours to print. First, the lab cast the molds in ceramic, an inanimate substance similar to the calcium carbonate found in natural coral reefs. Next, they filled the molds with cement on the beach at Summer Island before fitting them together to create a giant, human-made coral reef.

Now, the mold lays seven meters (23 feet) underwater in a sandy part of Summer Island’s “Blue Lagoon” nearby the resort’s coral nursery. Scientists hope that the artificial structure will encourage the coral growth to eventually expand and colonize the neighboring 3D printed structure and create a larger coral reef ecosystem.

“Projects like the 3D printed reef are popular among guests, who like that we protect our environment. And it’s not only for the guests. Our staff, most of whom are Maldivian, want to protect their environment. Ultimately, we want to help promote a culture of environmental stewardship, not just at Summer Island, but across the Maldives,” shared Summer Island Resort’s manager, Mari Shareef.

According to The World Wildlife Federation (WWF), about one-quarter of the world’s coral reefs have already suffered damage beyond repair, and the other two-thirds remains under serious threat. This comes as a result of factors such as increasing water temperatures, destructive fishing practices, overfishing, careless tourism, poisoning from pollution, coral mining, and erosion caused by human activities.

Industrial designer, Alex Goad, of the Reef Design Lab explains, "3D printing technology helps us to develop more innovative ways of protecting coral reefs. The technology allows us to mimic the complexity of natural reef structures, so we can design artificial reefs that closely resemble those found in nature. We hope this will be a more effective way of growing and restoring corals."

3D printing offers a new way to bolster the protection of coral reefs by imitating and encouraging the growth of their ecosystem. If effective, conservationists will continue to employ this technique to help increase coral populations and reverse the declining health of reefs worldwide.

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ALLISON MICHELLE DIENSTMAN, CONTRIBUTOR
Working from her laptop as a freelance writer, Allison lives as a digital nomad, exploring the world while sharing positivity and laughter. She is a lover of language, travel, music, and creativity with a degree in Chinese language and literature.

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