Construction 3D PrintingSustainability

HKU architects and marine scientists co-develop novel 3D printed reef tiles

They will help to repopulate coral communities and conserve biodiversity in Hong Kong

In yet another fascinating demonstration of the capabilities of construction 3D printing to rebuild marine habitats, architects and marine scientists at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) have jointly developed a novel method for coral restoration making use of specially designed, 3D printed reef tiles. The elegant looking structures can be used by corals to enhance their chance of survival in the Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park in Hong Kong waters.

The restoration project was commissioned by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) as part of the active management of coral communities in the Marine Park. Architects from the Robotic Fabrication Lab, under the Fabrication and Material Technologies Lab of the Faculty of Architecture, and marine scientists from the Swire Institute of Marine Science (SWIMS) of the Faculty of Science at HKU collaborated to produce reef tiles tailored for coral attachment and monitor the development of the coral community in the Marine Park.

The Marine Park is a local biodiversity hotspot accounting for more than three-quarters of reef-building corals in Hong Kong and more than 120 fish species. However, in recent years, gradual deterioration of the coral habitat, a process known as bioerosion, coupled with coral bleaching and mass mortality events in 2015-2016, are putting the future of the coral community at risk.

Under the project, 3D printed terracotta ‘reef tiles’, designed and developed by the Robotic Fabrication Lab, covering roughly 40 square metres in total, were deployed in July 2020 at three selected sites within the Marine Park, including Coral Beach, Moon Island, and a sheltered bay near the WWF Marine Life Centre.

The artificial reef tiles are specially designed to aid coral restoration by providing a structurally complex foundation for coral attachment and to prevent sedimentation, one of the major threats to corals. They provide anchors for corals of opportunity, i.e. dislodged coral fragments that are unlikely to survive on their own, giving them a second chance to thrive.

The tiles, seeded with coral fragments, were deposited in July 2020. Three coral species historically common in the Marine Park, namely Acropora, Platygyra, and Pavona, were selected for the study. They have different growth forms, representing the branching ‘staghorn’, massive ‘brain’, and foliose ‘plating’ colony forms, creating a diverse habitat for other marine species. Marine scientists at SWIMS will investigate the success of restoration using the mono-, mix- and polyculture of the three coral species, while researchers will monitor the performance of corals on the tiles for the next one and a half years.

The 128 pieces of reef tile with a diameter of 600mm were printed through a robotic 3D clay printing method with generic terracotta clay and then fired at 1125 degrees Celsius. The design was inspired by the patterns typical to corals and integrated several performative aspects addressing the specific conditions in Hong Kong waters.

In addition to the novel design of the tiles, the materials used are more eco-friendly than the conventional use of concrete and metal. The tiles were printed in clay and then hardened to terracotta (ceramic) in a kiln. The team plans to expand their collaboration to new designs with additional functions for seabed restoration in the region.

The researchers hope that this new method for artificial reef tiles will help to restore corals and conserve biodiversity more effectively and become a vital contribution to the ongoing global efforts to save the degraded coral reef systems.

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst for leading US-firm SmarTech Analysis, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he Co-founded London-based 3dpbm. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites 3D Printing Media Network and Replicatore, as well as 3D Printing Business Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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