By Heather Redding – The Caribbean island of Bonaire is launching a project where 3D printers will be used to create artificial coral reefs. Coral reefs are vital to marine life, but they are extremely susceptible to the ravages caused by changes in their environment. The coral reefs near Bonaire are also not spared of this.
Coral Reefs are Endangered by changes in Environment
Coral reefs provide homes to a host of oceanic flora and fauna. Algae, sea grasses, corals, sea urchins, sponges, lobsters, sea turtles, sea stars, dolphins and other fish all depend on the ecosystems found within coral reefs.
According to a peer-reviewed article at the website of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, a quarter of the ocean’s species depend on coral reefs for their existence. Additionally, coral reefs are a billion-dollar industry annually. In purely economic terms, coral reefs:
- Protect shorelines
- Provide food for human consumption
- Are a source of employment in the tourism industry
- Even provide medicines: that will likely amaze you, but it is a fact!
Warming of the waters due to environmental changes has led to coral bleaching. In addition, changes in the ocean’s chemistry, invasive species and careless fishing practices are also grave threats to coral reefs.
Over the past few decades, marine biologists, ecologists and other scientists have been warning about the dangers this warming pose to coral reefs — and the threat posed by coral bleaching.
What is Coral Bleaching?
Corals need algae for their survival. Algae are pivotal to the health and sustainability of coral reefs. They reside within polyps inside the tissues of corals, thus forming a mutually-beneficial or symbiotic relationship.
Coral bleaching is the name given to the process whereby the coral expunges the algae and turns completely white.
The bleached coral is still alive but its health is severely jeopardized. That is because corals derive nearly all of their energy from algae through photosynthesis. Without the algae, the coral goes into starvation mode. As corals die, the survival of the entire reef is threatened.
The symbiotic relationship between the coral and algae is highly dependent on water temperatures. Global warming leads to warmer-than-average sea temperatures, which then causes the coral to expel its algae.
This sequence of events caused by man’s imprudent environmental practices has had profound and catastrophic consequences for coral reefs worldwide.
Can Bleached Corals be Saved?
A bleached coral is not a dead coral. It continues to live, but it undergoes a slow starvation, because without algae, the coral cannot photosynthesize its food. Corals are able to survive the bleaching event, and if algae are able to re-enter the polyps within the tissue of corals, photosynthesis will be restarted to create food for survival.
However, if the bleaching process causes the polyps to starve to death, then the corals will decay. The hard coral species tend to leave their calcium carbonate skeletons intact, which are then colonized by algae, thus blocking the re-growth of corals. When bleaching occurs on a large scale it becomes extremely hard to stop, but there might be a glimmer of hope: 3D printing.
This is something that wouldn’t be possible without 3D printers, as classic CNC milling machines can’t reproduce the reef structure in such great detail, or work with the required materials.
Saving the Caribbean Coral Reef with 3D Printing
The Caribbean island of Bonaire is launching a project where 3D printers will be used to create artificial coral reefs. Fortunately, coral bleaching off the coast of Bonaire has not yet reached devastating levels, so much can be achieved by acting on time.
The project is spearheaded by Fabien Cousteau, a grandson of Jacques Cousteau — the late, legendary underwater explorer. Fabien Cousteau has founded a non-profit organization in Bonaire, known as the Ocean Learning Center. It is located in the Harbour Village Beach Club resort.
The center will house a 3D printing machine to create artificial reefs for local seas. Experimentations are underway to find the ideal materials for building the reefs. The planting of new reefs are planned for the immediate future.
The Link Between Corals and 3D Printing
3D printing has many uses in various industries, it improves manufacturing processes, has revolutionary uses in medicine, and even shapes the cultural aspects of our lives. With 3D printing, you can make anything, from quick prototypes, to medical devices, jewelry, car parts, computers, robots, sensors and more. Even artificial coral reefs.
The Caribbean artificial reef project is not the first of its kind. In late 2015, in what was a technological first, a European project team created half a dozen artificial reefs using 3D printers. Their goal: the increase of biodiversity in the waters off Monaco, as well as comparison of artificial reefs with traditional reefs.
The shape, chemical make-up and texture of 3D printed reefs can closely mimic the natural reefs. As such, they attract vital, free-floating baby coral polyps — and the algae that reside in their tissues. This Monaco pilot project used six artificial reefs that were constructed in Italy using Dolomite sand and a marine-safe binding agent. The team used a D-Shape printer. The reefs were then transported to the principality of Monaco, where they were installed by a professional diving team. Extensive monitoring was carried out over many months, with extremely favorable results.
How do Artificial Reefs Help?
Artificial reefs can help to restore and rejuvenate coral reef colonies that have suffered from bleaching. The texture of natural reef is important, and 3D printing successfully recreates it. This attracts vital polyps into the coral’s nooks and crannies, where they take hold and mature.
Various other forms of marine life also make use of the texture of corals, thus enabling biodiversity within the coral reef ecosystem.
Early 3D printed reefs did not create a detailed textural match, so early colonizers of the reef surfaces often fell off. Newer, more exacting technology has rendered this a problem of the past, however.
Conclusion: 3D Printed Artificial Reefs Could Preserve Coral Reefs
It is most fascinating how technological solutions can be used to benefit the natural world.
Coral reefs are under threat world-wide, primarily because global warming has increased ocean temperatures, but 3D printing is being utilized in the effort to save them.
Thanks to the intricate highly-detailed design in which artificial 3D printed reefs can be produced, several projects are showing promising results in rejuvenating coral reefs. Thanks to those efforts, thriving colonies of baby corals or polyps can find a new home.
Heather Redding is a part-time assistant manager and freelance writer from Aurora, Illinois. She is also an avid reader and a tech enthusiast. When she is not working, Heather enjoys learning about new tech developments over a cup of coffee.