Colourful coral reef

3D-printed coral reefs aiming to help marine life recover

Image credit: Dreamstime

Israeli researchers have placed 3D-printed coral reefs in marine environments to help curb global reef devastation.

The world's coral reefs are becoming extinct. Factors including global warming and accelerated urbanisation in coastal areas are placing tremendous stress on marine life and damaging coral ecosystems. 3D-printing could be one solution.

In a paper published in Science of the Total Environment, researchers from four of Israel’s leading universities – Bar-Ilan U, Technion, University of Haifa and Tel Aviv University – highlighted a 3D-printing method they developed to help preserve coral reefs.

The research project is based on the natural structure of coral reefs off the southern coastal Israeli city of Eilat, but the model is adaptable to other marine environments and could help curb reef devastation plaguing coral ecosystems around the world.

"The rapid decline of coral reefs has increased the need for exploring interdisciplinary methods for reef restoration," explained Natalie Levy, a member of the research team.

"Examining how to conserve the biodiversity of coral reefs is a key issue, but there is also an urgent need to invest in technology that can improve the coral ecosystem and our understanding of the reef environment."

The 3D process begins by scanning thousands of underwater photographs of coral reefs. From this visual information, a three-dimensional model of the reef is assembled. The design of the model takes into account the complex form of the reef and how that form encourages the evolution of reef species diversity.

Using a molecular method of collecting environmental genetic information, the researchers are able to obtain accurate data on the reef’s organisms. This data is then fed into a 3D-technology algorithm, making it possible to build a parametric interactive model that fits the designated reef environment.

The final stage is the 3D-printing of a reef. The reefs are made of a unique ceramic that is naturally porous underwater, meeting the ideal construction and restoration needs of the affected area.

"Three-dimensional printing with natural material facilitates the production of highly complex and diverse units that is not possible with the usual means of mould production," said Professor Ezri Tarazi.

The model also allows data to be re-fed into the algorithm to check the level of effectiveness and efficiency of the design after it has been implemented, based on information collected during the process.

"Existing artificial reefs have difficulty replicating the complexity of coral habitats and hosting reef species that mirror natural environments," Levy said. "We introduce a novel customisable 3D interface for producing scalable structures, utilising real data collected from coral ecosystems."

There are currently several 3D-printed reefs installed in the Gulf of Eilat and the researchers believe that the results will help them apply the innovation to other reef ecosystems around the world.

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