The rate at which the world’s oceans are filling with plastic is unsustainable. Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic reportedly enters the ocean, polluting the many ecosystems it contains. And though cleanup efforts do make small differences, the scale of the crisis makes it impossible to remove all the plastic. Because of this, alternative methods for improving biodiversity in the ocean are becoming increasingly important.
Some of these efforts have come to rely on 3D printing. For instance, organizations such as the Reef Design Lab in Australia are attempting to salvage coral reef ecosystems by implementing 3D printed coral. The 3D printed coral-inspired structures can be placed in coral reefs to provide habitable environments for the various species of fish and sea creatures that depend on coral.
Along a similar line, Swedish car manufacturer Volvo recently teamed up with the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) and the Reef Design Lab to create the Living Seawall, a biomimetic 3D printed surface which encourages the proliferation of marine life by providing a habitat.
Unlike the coral effort, the Living Seawall aims to make a human-made infrastructure—the seawall—more ecological. That is, though some natural barriers such as mangroves and coral reefs exist, most seawalls are made from concrete or steel and act as a form of coastal defense, protecting human habitation from tides, waves or tsunamis.
In Sydney, Australia, over half of the city’s shoreline is artificial, which—while protecting the city from the ocean—has created challenges for intertidal biodiversity. For this reason, Volvo, SIMS and the Reef Design Lab have developed 3D printed seawall tiles whose structure mimics the roots of native mangrove trees.
“The Living Seawall adds complexity to the existing seawall structure and provides a habitat for marine life,” Volve writes on the project page. “This aids biodiversity and attracts filter-feeding organisms that actually absorb and filter out pollutants—such as particulate matter and heavy metals—keeping the water ‘clean’. The more organisms we have, the cleaner the water.”
The Living Seawall is currently made up of 50 concrete tiles, each cast from a 3D printed mold and reinforced with recycled plastic fibers. The impressive structures are installed along an existing seawall structure in the Sydney Harbour. Over the next two decades, researchers have committed to monitoring the Living Seawall to track how it improves biodiversity and water quality.
This is not the first 3D printed seawall project undertaken by the Reef Design Lab, as it has been developing the concrete structures since as early as 2014. Notably, the organization has been working closely with SIMS, a leader in habitat engineering research, to realize the world’s largest 3D printed seawall research project which will consist of over 500 habitat panels installed in the Sydney Harbour.