Researchers at KAUST in Saudi Arabia are exploring the use of 3D printing to provide support structures for coral reef restoration.

coral reef
Image credit: 2021 KAUST; Anastasia Serin.

Coral reefs worldwide are suffering the effects of warming oceans and pollution. Current reef restoration efforts use concrete blocks or metal frames as substrates for coral growth. The resulting restoration is slow because corals deposit their carbonate skeleton at a rate of just millimetres per year.

“Coral microfragments grow more quickly on our printed or moulded calcium carbonate surfaces that we create for them to grow on, because they don’t need to build a limestone structure underneath,” said Hamed Albalawi, one of the study’s lead authors.

Whilst researchers have previously tested several approaches to printing coral support structures, most efforts have used synthetic materials, though work is being done to use hybrid materials.

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The KAUST team developed and tested a new approach called 3D CoraPrint, which uses sustainable calcium carbonate photo-initiated (CCP) ink. Tests in aquariums have shown that CCP is non-toxic, researchers said, though they are planning longer-term tests.

Unlike existing approaches, which rely on passive colonisation of the printed support structure, 3D CoraPrint involves attaching coral microfragments to the printed skeleton to start the colonisation process.

It also incorporates two different printing methods, both of which start with a scanned model of a coral skeleton. In the first method, the model is printed and the print is then used to cast a silicon mould. The final structure is produced by filling the mould with CCP ink. In the second method, the support structure is printed directly using the CCP ink.

The two approaches offer ‘complementary advantages’, the team said. Creating a mould means the structure can be easily and quickly reproduced, but the curing process limits the size of the mould.

Direct printing is slower and lower resolution, but it allows for individual customisation and the creation of larger structures.

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