3D printing may hold the key to saving the world’s coral reefs

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THUWAL, Saudi Arabia — 3D printers are so common these days, your average consumer can buy their own and make all sorts of products for use in their everyday lives. Now, 3D printing may be able to serve an even more important purpose — reversing the damage of global warming. Researchers have created a way to make 3D-printed frames which can help restore the oceans’ coral reefs.

A team from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), led by researcher Charlotte Hauser, used ecofriendly and sustainable ink to build structures which they say will help grow new coral quicker and easier than current methods. As a result of warming ocean temperatures and increasing pollution, coral reefs worldwide are continuing to shrink. The destruction of these habitats leads to the disruption of ocean life and potential death of many species.

Currently, humans use concrete blocks and metal frames to grow new coral. Unfortunately, this process is slow and corals generally deposit their carbonate skeleton at a rate of a few millimeters per year. 3D-printed corals may speed this up significantly.

“Coral microfragments grow more quickly on our printed or molded calcium carbonate surfaces that we create for them to grow on because they don’t need to build a limestone structure underneath,” says study author Hamed Albalawi in a university release.

CoraPrint comes with 2 options, but which is better?

Researchers believe this process can give a coral reef a “head start” on growing back. Although the idea is not new, the materials the team is using are unique.

3d printing coral reef
The team developed and tested a new approach called 3D CoraPrint, which uses an ecofriendly and sustainable calcium carbonate photo-initiated ink. (© 2021 KAUST; Anastasia Serin)

Study authors used a system called 3D CoraPrint which utilizes sustainable calcium carbonate photo-initiated (CCP) ink. Tests on this substance shows CCP in non-toxic in aquarium environments.

The process is also different from other coral restoration strategies because it relies on passive colonization of the 3D-printed corals. Scientists attach coral microfragments to the 3D CoraPrint creations, which start the growing process.

CoraPrint can also use two different printing processes, which both start with scanning a model of a coral skeleton. The first method involves printing the model which the team then uses to create a silicon mold. From there, scientists fill the mold with CCP ink. The second printing process builds the coral support using CCP ink directly, with no need for an initial mold.

Both of these methods have their ups and downs. Building a mold is a quicker process, but it limits the size of the coral structure. Directly printing corals in CCP ink is a much slower process, but it allows the team to customize the size.

“With 3D printing and molds, we can get both flexibility and mimicry of what’s already going on in nature,” study author Zainab Khan concludes. “The structure and process can be as close as possible to nature. Our goal is to facilitate that.”

The study appears in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.