There’s been little in the way of good news for the oceans’ coral reefs in recent times, but one man and his 3D printer may have come to the rescue. Design technologist of Objects and Ideograms, Alex Schofield, has been working on a novel technique to create new skeletons for coral reefs to form on, and lab experiments have shown the technology holds promise.
"Coral reefs were a really interesting challenge for me. I kind of fell into in a little bit of an accident," said Schofield to ABC30. "I had a friend who said 'hey, do you think you can 3D print coral?"
Innovating from the Bay Area, San Francisco, Schofield found a way to incorporate calcium carbonate - the material that forms the scaffolding of a coral reef - into 3D printing to create complex reef surfaces that could replace the real thing. By grinding down calcium carbonate, also known as limestone, into a fine powder Schofield could build an artificial reef with the necessary plane to support accommodation-seeking polyps.
"The 3D printer builds it (calcium carbonate skeleton) layer by layer," said Schofield. "It’s actually something that is very textural. There's a lot of variation in it. There is a lot of nooks and crannies."
Schofield and colleagues have been working on the tech since 2019 and have since teamed up with the College of the Arts and Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab in the San Francisco Bay to test the printed structures’ efficiency. Sure enough, they found the printed limestone structures lured in a variety of marine organisms.
"We get a very interesting and diverse amount of things that grow," said Schofield. "We have seen baby oysters that begin to grow. There was a tiny crab that was living in there. There are all sorts of different kinds of algae and microorganisms that are there that actually create a lot of the food and environments that support things like fish and oysters."
Reefs form as coral polyps effectively move into these same “nooks and crannies” on naturally occurring limestone, creating vast communities of organisms which is what earns reefs’ their nickname as the “rainforests of the sea.” Established coral reefs are estimated to support around a quarter of all known marine species, demonstrating their significance in the rich landscape of our oceans.
A recent landmark IPCC report however painted an uncertain picture for the future of Earth’s coral reefs, as it found 2°C (3.6°F) of warming could be the death of them. 2020 saw a flurry of increasingly gloomy reports as to the bleaching status of Australia’s reefs, though new (and enormous) reefs are being discovered to this day.
While Schofield’s printer holds promise for reefs, it’s his hope that the tech has wider applications for science and the environment.
"I hope that this work can actually find a lot of use in the wild and applications," said Schofield. "That doesn't mean just me printing a bunch of things myself. It means other people printing things. It means a lot of scientists, a lot of people on the ground who are actively doing work taking these and putting them out into the wild and actually having coral have a lot of benefit in that it has a home to begin to grow into."