Artificial habitats to support ecosystems

Coral reef ecosystems face several global threats, including climate change and increased urbanization of coastal regions. However, a team from Bar-Ilan University, Israel, has developed a 3D printing method that could help in the conservation of coral reef systems.

Image credit: Biu.ac.il. (2022) Reforming coral reefs using 3D printing. [online] Available at: https://www.biu.ac.il/en/article/11141

Published in the journal Total Environmental Science, the paper reveals that while the new method was based on reef formations off the coastal region near the Israeli city of Eilat, the model can be modified to fit other habitats.

Examining how to conserve coral reef biodiversity is a key issue, but there is also an urgent need to invest in technologies that can improve the coral ecosystem and our understanding of the reef environment.

Natalie Lévy, Ph.D. Student, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Printing biomimetic structures

Previous attempts to replicate reef systems in man-made structures have encountered difficulties where replicating the complexity of coral habitats and scaling them as such can be problematic in design and production.

The first step in the new process the Israeli researchers have developed begins with the production of a 3D model based on visual data taken from a series of underwater photographs of a particular region. Thousands of images are digitized and sent to the lab to calculate the complex biomimetic structures and intricate reef systems that typically support eco-diversity.

Once the imaging data phase was complete, the team applied a molecular method to understand which organisms were present in a particular region or reef system. This data is then added to the image data along with all other key parameters to build an interactive 3D model of the reef using an algorithm optimized for 3D technology.

Design environment-specific reef systems

One of the key features of this method is that it can be tailored to a particular reef system or region based on the imagery data fed into the algorithm. This process makes it possible to customize 3D printed models that precisely match the intended ecosystem.

Once all the data has been processed and the design of an environment-specific reef system has been finalized, a ceramic model can be printed. The ceramic substrate used for the printing process is inherently porous and therefore ideal for encouraging the growth of new reef structures and promoting eco-diversity.

Three-dimensional printing with natural material facilitates the production of very complex and diverse units, which is not possible with the usual means of mold production.

Teacher. Ezri Tarazi, Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning, Israel Institute of Technology

Additionally, data can be fed back into the algorithm to qualify the effectiveness and efficiency of the design even after implementation, based on the data and information collected during the process.

This methodology offers both environmental and economical solutions for developing biomimetic structures for a variety of small- and large-scale restoration projects that strongly resemble the coral reefs they aim to support.

Overall, the researchers believe this method has the potential to help save coral reefs that are at risk of collapsing due to environmental factors.

It addresses two critical needs, which first address the need to create innovative and adaptable solutions to help sustain and preserve coral reefs globally. Second, the ability to produce biomimetic structures that match the complexity of natural reef systems to attract reef-based species, including corals, fish, and invertebrates.

By promoting conservation and supporting coral reef systems at risk, this system also addresses other challenges associated with coral reef degradation, such as protecting coastal areas from erosion and storms as well as stimulating local economies as a source of food and medicine.

References and further reading

Levy, N. and Berman, O., et al., (2022) Emerging 3D Technologies for Future Coral Reef Reform: Enhancing Biodiversity Using Biomimetic Structures Based on Natural Designs. Total Environmental Science, [online] 830, p.154749. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969722018423?via%3Dihub

Biu.ac.il. (2022) Reforming coral reefs with 3D printing. [online] Available at: https://www.biu.ac.il/en/article/11141

Noaa.gov. (2022) Coral reef ecosystems | The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. [online] Available at: http://www.noaa.gov/education/resource-collections/marine-life/coral-reef-ecosystems

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