May 23, 2022
3D-printing method may curb reef devastation plaguing coral ecosystems
The translation of a 3D reef structure based on the reef’s biodiversity and core characteristics to generate a design for the 3D printer, followed by the evaluation of the reef reformation goals using the molecular and 3D imaging evaluation toolkit. Credit: Professor Ofer Berman and Matan Yuval from the University of Haifa.

“We introduce a novel, customizable three-dimensional interface for producing scalable structures, utilizing real data collected from coral ecosystems,” explains Ph.D. student Natalie Levy.

(April 29, 2022 / JNS) The world’s coral reefs are becoming extinct due to many factors such as global warming and accelerated urbanization in coastal areas, which places tremendous stress on marine life.

“The rapid decline of coral reefs has increased the need for exploring interdisciplinary methods for reef restoration,” explains Natalie Levy, a Ph.D. student at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. “Examining how to conserve the biodiversity of coral reefs is a key issue, but there is also an urgent need to invest in technology that can improve the coral ecosystem and our understanding of the reef environment.”

In a paper published in the journal Science of the Total Environmentresearchers from four of Israel’s leading universities highlight a three-dimensional printing method they developed to preserve coral reefs. Their innovation is based on the natural structure of coral reefs off the southern coastal Israeli city of Eilat, but their model is adaptable to other marine environments and may help curb reef devastation plaguing coral ecosystems around the world.

The joint research was led by Professor Oren Levy and Ph.D. student Levy of the Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar-Ilan University; Professor Ezri Tarazi and Ph.D. student Ofer Berman from the Architecture and Town Planning Faculty at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology; Professor Tali Treibitz and Ph.D. student Matan Yuval from the University of Haifa; and Professor Yossi Loya of Tel Aviv University.

The process begins by scanning underwater photographs of coral reefs. From this visual information, a 3D model of the reef is assembled with maximum accuracy. Thousands of images are photographed and sent to the laboratory to calculate the complex form of the reef and how that form encourages the evolution of reef species diversity.

Next, researchers use a molecular method of collecting environmental genetic information, which provides accurate data on the reef’s organisms. This data is incorporated with other parameters and is fed into a 3D-technology algorithm, making it possible to build a parametric interactive model of the reef. The model can be designed to precisely fit the designated reef environment.

The final stage is the translation and production of a ceramic reef in 3D printing.

The reefs are made of ceramic that is naturally porous underwater, providing the most ideal construction and restoration needs to the affected area or for the establishment of a new reef structure as a foundation for the continuation of life. “Three-dimensional printing with natural material facilitates the production of highly complex and diverse units that is not possible with the usual means of mold production,” says Tarazi.

The process combines 3D-scanning algorithms, together with environmental DNA sampling, and a 3D-printing algorithm that allows in-depth and accurate examination of the data from each reef, as well as tailoring the printed model to a specific reef environment. In addition, data can be refed into the algorithm to check the level of effectiveness and efficiency of the design after it has been implemented, based on information collected in the process.

The workflow of 3D interface, starting with data collection using molecular tools and 3D imaging. Credit: Natalie Levy and Professor Ofer Berman of the Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar-Ilan University.

“Existing artificial reefs have difficulty replicating the complexity of coral habitats and hosting reef species that mirror natural environments. We introduce a novel, customizable 3D interface for producing scalable structures, utilizing real data collected from coral ecosystems,” explains Levy.

Berman adds that “the use of 3D printing allows for the extensive freedom of action in algorithm-based solutions, as well as the assimilation of sustainable production for the development of large-scale marine rehabilitation.”

This study meets two critical needs to save coral reefs, according to the researchers. The first is the need for innovative solutions that facilitate large-scale restoration that can be adapted to support coral reefs worldwide. The second is the recreation of a natural complexity of the coral reef, both in size and design, that will attract reef species such as fish and invertebrates that support the regrowth of natural coral reefs.

The researchers are currently installing several 3D-printed reefs in the Gulf of Eilat. They believe that the results they obtain will help them apply this innovation to other reef ecosystems around the world.