All it takes is one line ...
And then a bunch more
And then a lot more still
... to create this.
What you're looking at is a tool that could aidour coral ecosystems.
(And it's made with3D printing )
Human hands have brought our oceans to a crisis point, but these same hands have the power to change that, bit by bit with a little bit of help from 3D printing.
One of these tools made it to the Maldives in 2018.
Near the coast of Summer Island to be specific.
Officially called the Modular Artificial Reef Structure (MARS), these lattice-like structures sit on the sea floor.
This is what they look like once they're installed.
Think of them like Lego blocks Lego for the tropics.
The MARS units are the brainchild of Alex Goad. He's the founder of industrial design studio, Reef Design Lab (RDL).
"It was actually my graduate project from uni, so I'm just that person who could never let his graduate project go," Goad told ABC RN's Blueprint For Living.
He said the units are designed to attract the growth of new coral, to "act as a permanent coral farming device".
Of course, coral farming's success is dependent on keeping ocean temperatures from rising to such an extent that coral can no longer survive.
And in recent weeks, new climate reports and a widespread bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef have demonstrated how much of a precipice coral reefs are on.
RDL's MARS units are made with incredibly complex surface geometry mimicking the crevices, gaps, and indents of natural coral environments to foster new coral growth.
Some of the MARS units are installed with transplanted corals, or coral "frags" think of these as starter kits for a new coral colony.
These are grown in a coral nursery then returned to their natural habitat.
Goad wanted to eliminate the need for heavy machinery during installation.
Instead, his MARS units can be installed with divers and a dinghy.
These units have to survive the extremely corrosive environment under the sea.
So, Goad took some inspiration from the Ancient Romans to inform his decidedly modern invention.
"If you think about the ceramic amphora [vases] that they still find in the Mediterranean Sea after thousands of years, we clearly know ceramic is a great material for longevity underwater," he told RN Blueprint.
"We use a combination of 3D-printed moulds and slip casting to create the ceramic exterior.
"We then fill that with marine concrete and take the units individually underwater to start building these lattice structures."
Beneath the surface, divers gather coral frags
which are installed on the MARS unit.
And if all goes well new coral begins to take shape.
In time, the structures may become shelter for local fish.
This one's attracted a moray eel.
When it was installed in 2018, the MARS reef took the Guinness World Record for being the worlds largest 3D-printed ceramic reef.
What started as Goads 2013 uni project has since been exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Milan Triennale, Helsinki's Design Museum, and the National Gallery of Victoria.
"[MARS] was the catalyst for starting the lab and continuing down a path of digital fabrication for marine restoration projects," Goad told RN Blueprint.
The labs work all hinges on 3D printings ability to create incredibly intricate objects that traditional manufacturing cant.
While traditional manufacturing cuts away from a lump of raw material, 3D printing builds an object layer by layer.
Designers can print objects with a multitude of materials simultaneously, with exceptionally fine detail even replicating things like skin and organ tissue.
So, when it comes to mimicking the complexity of the natural world, 3D printing is one of the best tools out there.
"If we were to use any other fabrication method, it's just harder and much more expensive for us to make the organic geometry that we really want to test," Goad told RN Blueprint.
"It's very affordable to have a 3D-printing farm like what we have here
" to test out all these different ideas so easily."
As Goad points out, his artificial reef blocks are "only one of a million different restoration tools being used at the moment".
So what else has the lab been working on?
If you're reading this in Australia, chances are you live within 50 kilometres of the ocean, like around 85 per cent of Australians.
Australian coasts are at risk of being "loved to death", because urban sprawl isn't just a phenomenon that happens on land.
"We're very aware of habitat loss that's happening on land. We can see when we're removing a forest the same things are actually happening underwaterwe just don't see it," Maria Vozzo, a marine ecologist and research fellow at the CSIRO, told Blueprint for Living.
In many urban areas, coasts are partly and in some cases completely artificial, neatly bordered by seawalls, jetties and building platforms.
Sydney Harbour, for example, has 50 per cent of its coast wrapped up in artificial structures. The platform that holds up the Sydney Opera House is one obvious example.
While these structures protect our built environment from inundation, they interrupt the habitats beneath the surface.
And that's why the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) has created these.
Known as "living seawalls", they're tiles made of marine concrete, cast from 3D-printed moulds all designed by Reef Design Lab.
They're attached, Lego-like, to artificial structures to mimic the "architecture" of the coastlines they're placed in.
And, with time, many marine creatures call the tiles' nooks and crannies home.
Until recently, Dr Vozzo was manager of SIMS's Living Seawall program, an example of the emerging discipline of "eco-engineering", where environmental science and remedial design collide.
To test variations in their tile designs, SIMS and Reef Design Lab collaborate on custom 3D-printed moulds.
Prior to 3D printing, SIMS researchers had to contend with rudimentary experiments, like cutting flower pots in half and attaching them to seawalls to mimic rockpools.
"As researchers, we tend to go to Bunnings and see what we can find to try and retrofit something," Dr Vozzo said.
"Getting to that fine scale of modifying designs like [seeing] what would happen if [tiles] had 45 and 55 degree angles was something we couldn't do before."
Dr Vozzo told Blueprint she hopes that greater diversity in tile design brings greater biodiversity to Sydney Harbour.
"Designs that either retain water during low tide, or provide shade and moisture to keep the habitat cooler, have been really beneficial," she said.
"We tend to see really high [species] diversity and abundance in those types of features."
Further south, the Reef Design Lab has been working with the University of Melbourne to create custom planters to support mangrove seedlings.
And on the other side of the Earth in the North Sea, RDL has a project with WWF Netherlands, using 3D-printed reefs to bring back biodiversity to one of the world's busiest seas.
But do these objects actually work?
No feat of eco-engineering can ever be an equal substitute for an existing natural environment.
So, developers should only turn to it as a last resort.
"Something that we're always very cautious of is greenwashing an excuse for developers to build a really damaging seawall in an ecologically important area," says Goad.
"We would never want a whole mangrove forest to be destroyed and have a Living Seawall put in its place."
It's a sentiment shared by Dr Vozzo.
"[SIMS] has been approached by different companies wanting to develop or modify natural shorelines [using] the Living Seawalls as an offset, when in our opinion, the development or modification wasn't needed it was just a way for the project to get over the line," she toldBlueprint for Living.
"There's plenty of work going into living shorelines, where you use oyster reefs, salt marsh, mangroves or a combination of those to protect shorelines rather than build a hard structure. We want those options explored first."
But where hard underwater structures already exist, living seawall tiles can help mitigate the damage, Dr Vozzo said.
As eco-engineering is a relatively new field, there isn't a heap of peer-reviewed research into how well it works.
Louise Firth, a marine biologist at the UK's University of Plymouth, co-authored a summary of the research on eco-engineered marine structures.
"The evidence is often pointing in the right direction that you can do interventions to improve the biodiversity and functioning of these environments," said Dr Firth.
"But it doesn't always work."
Much of the research about the Reef Design Lab's work specifically is still underway.
It's also important to note that this research while peer-reviewed involves institutes that have directly commissioned the lab's work. This includes a SIMS-led study released in October 2020.
That study analysed the results of their World Harbour Project, a simultaneous global experiment to see whether geometrically complex seawall tiles cast from RDL's 3D-printed moulds could increase biodiversity everywhere they were installed.
Spanning 14 intertidal locations around the globe, the study found designs with greater surface complexity did support more species and higher populations of marine life.
But this wasn't universal, with only 10 out of 14 locations recording positive effects when complex tiles were introduced.
Tropical locations seemed to fare better than temperate ones, and the takeaway was that tiles need to be tailored to their local environment.
"Costly eco-engineering interventions may have negligible benefit at some locations and may even negatively influence some if applied blindly," the study authors concluded.
Another study investigated whether complex Living Seawall tiles could have multiple functions.
It looked at whether tiles could boost biodiversity and also lead to greater water filtration from species like oysters and mussels around Sydney Harbour.
The researchers observed complex tiles, as well as other tiles that came seeded with native oysters.
Greater complexity improved biodiversity and abundance, but there was a catch. Seeding was weaker on more complex tiles, although still more effective than with flat or unseeded tiles.
Another SIMS study currently being peer-reviewed suggests different tile designs support different marine species.
"By having a mosaic of them on a seawall, you can support little communities within this broader living seawall," Dr Vozzo said.
For Dr Vozzo, what's promising is the speed at which biodiversity takes to eco-engineered seawalls.
"The existing community like oysters on a flat seawall have been there for decades, if not longer," she said.
"After six months, the diversity [on living seawall tiles] already matches that of a decades-old community on an [unmodified] seawall, and after just two years, we've actually exceeded that diversity.
"Different designs or geometries do support distinct communities, and by [doing] this, you're further increasing the diversity over a stretch of seawall."
Eco-engineering seems like a tantalising prospect in a world reaching for technological convenience, while facing rapid warming.
But eco-engineering alone isn't going to be the silver bullet that some want it to be.
"We get a lot of people saying, We have mass coral bleaching in our area, can you bring some MARS units in?" Goad said.
"Even with a farming process, if you get really bad heat waves, everything is going to bleach anyway."
Still, eco-engineering is a tool to combat an existential threat that requires a plethora of responses.
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