Australian architect James Gardiner wants to use 3D-printing technology to build structures for coral to grow on in places where reefs are decimated by disease, pollution, dredging, and other maladies (looking at you, crown o’ thorns).
Right now, artificial reefs are built out of uniform, blocky assemblages of concrete or steel. Those are cheap and easy to make, but don’t look or work like the real thing — for starters, because “the marine life that colonizes these reef surfaces can sometimes fall off,” one biologist told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Gardiner worked with David Lennon of Reef Design Lab to design new shapes with textured surfaces and built-in tunnels and shelters. The computer models are turned into wax molds with the world’s largest 3D printer, and then cast with, essentially, sand. It’s a cheap and low-carbon way to manufacture custom, modular pieces of reef.
Reef Design Lab installed the first 3D-printed reef in Bahrain in 2012 — and, eight months later, it was covered with algae, sponges, and fish.
Mandatory disclaimer: Rebuilding all of the world’s coral reefs by hand is impossible, and climate change is still the biggest threat facing coral reefs, so let’s not forget to save the ones we’ve got.