The world’s largest and the Maldives first 3D-printed reef was installed by a resort at the weekend, with the technology being used to help protect coral reefs.
The artificial reef, assembled with hundreds of ceramic and concrete modules, was submerged in seven metres of water in a part of the lagoon where Summer Island Maldives is building a new coral reef ecosystem.
Coral reefs are under threat from climate change. In 2016 a particularly strong El Nino weather event, which caused sea temperatures to spike, devastated coral reefs across large parts of the Maldives. Climate change makes these coral ‘bleaching’ events increasingly likely and severe.
The project started in Australia, where industrial designer Alex Goad of Reef Design Lab used computing modelling to design reef structures similar to those found naturally in the Maldives.
A 3D printer took 24 hours to print moulds which were then cast in ceramic, an inert substance similar to limestone rock, and shipped to the Maldives. They were filled with marine concrete on the resort’s beach before being taken into the lagoon and assembled.
Like a giant aquatic LEGO set the 220 ceramic, concrete-filled moulds were slotted together underwater to create the new reef.
Coral fragments, grown on the resort’s existing and extensive coral nursery, were transplanted onto the 3D reef. In a few years, when the corals have colonised the reef, the resort wants a new reef teeming with fish and other marine life.
If the 3D printing technology proves successful, it could be a new way of helping coral reefs adapt to a warming climate.
“This is a science project, it’s a research project,” said Alex Goad. “3D printing technology helps us to mimic the complexity of natural reef structures, so we can design artificial reefs that closely resemble those found in nature.”
Goad will make his modular 3D designs open source, so other researchers in the Maldives can benefit from them without having to pay a licence fee.
The resort aims to study the reef with the help of marine biologists over the next few years, to see if the 3D version is better at encouraging coral growth than existing methods of artificially growing corals, such as with steel frames.
It has also introduced other environmental initiatives including the adoption of solar energy, a ban plastic straw usage and phasing out imported drinking water.
Resort manager Mari Shareef said these policies were popular among guests and staff.
“We want to help promote a culture of environmental stewardship, not just at Summer Island, but across the Maldives,” she said.