World's first 3D printed reef

In a world first, an advanced construction sized 3D printer could revolutionise artificial reef design and produce reef units that look and function like a natural reef, a major step forward in a bid to restore lost and damaged reefs around the world.

The recent announcement the Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral and the unrelenting global demand placed on recreational and commercial fisheries has increased the urgency of funding constructed reefs. Constructed reefs or ‘artificial reefs’ as they are commonly called are typically made using precast concrete, however traditional moulding systems are unable to reproduce the wonderful complexity and diversity of natural reefs. This new patent pending technique is a major step forward in the creation and restoration of reefs.

Unlike an office printer that uses ink, 3D printers use a special material that hardens, putting down successive layers and progressively building up a three dimensional object. 3D printers have been used to create product prototypes, artificial legs, beaks for wounded birds, parts for fighter jets, shoes, human kidneys and have now been scaled up to produce coral reefs.

Artificial reef design has been taken to a new level by an Australian-Bahraini team that includes Sustainable Oceans International (SOI) a specialist reef design consultancy in Australia, James Gardiner an award winning architect, and Reef Arabia a reef construction company in the Arabian Gulf.

In 2010, SOI awarded the annual ‘Sustainable Ocean Innovation award’ to Sydney architect James Gardiner for his world first conceptual reef project using a construction size 3D printer to print complex reef units to replace lost reefs or build new ones.

“When we saw this project we immediately recognised the potential for this technology to move SOI one step closer to achieving our goal of constructing beautiful natural looking reefs” says David Lennon, Director of SOI.

The team has printed its first reef units that stand 1mhigh and weigh 500kg each, the reefs look very similar to natural sandstone reefs. Traditionally, artificial reef units are made from concrete poured into a mould, but this method lacks the complexity of caves, connecting tunnels and the appearance of a natural reef. Most precast concrete reef units look artificial and this is something SOI has been working hard to change.

“We currently use one of the most natural looking concrete and mould systems available to build our reefs, but these 3D printed units are amazing in comparison. You can’t tell the difference from real rock and the advantage is that we can engineer them to have very specific features that suit target marine species” says David.

SOI and James Gardiner made four world first prototype units to trial. Two have been purchased by Reef Arabia and shipped to Bahrain for a special reef restoration project and two have just arrived in Australia.

The Arabian Gulf’s leading artificial reef construction company, Reef Arabia, will soon deploy the first 3D printed reef unit off the north coast of Bahrain. This unit will sit with 270 standard concrete precast reef units and will be closely monitored to gauge its effectiveness.

“This is very exciting and for us and it’s what I imagine it was like to watch the first plane take off in 1903 - witnessing the birth of a new era. It is a reflection of how advances in manufacturing technology can help us repair human impacts on the environment” said David.

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