Renata Ferrari & Will Figueira: Saving the Great Barrier Reef, One 3D Print at a Time

Dr Renata Ferrari, University of Sydney.

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The beautiful white and fluorescent-electric-blue colours betray a terrible tragedy – these corals are dead.

The beautiful white and fluorescent-electric-blue colours betray a terrible tragedy – these corals are dead.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. Two consecutive years of mass coral bleaching is bad news for conservationists because there is no time for the coral to regenerate between bleaching events. However, this has led to heightened awareness and efforts to prevent the death of what is known as the earth’s greatest living organism.

At The University of Sydney, researchers Associate Professor Willam Figueira and Dr Renata Ferrari are stepping up efforts to create virtual 3D maps of the Reef to study changes on the Reef and to print 3D coral prostheses that could be planted to help support its recovery.

With 3D-printed reefs, the exact shape of the natural environment can be replicated – an improvement over the artificial reefs created in the past using sunken ships and cinder blocks.

3D terrain reconstruction of a reef area on Heron Reef at Blue Pools, Great Barrier Reef. Photo by Renata Ferrari on Sketchfab.

3D terrain reconstruction of a reef area on Heron Reef at Blue Pools, Great Barrier Reef. This is used to study the impact of climate change of coral reef habitat.Photo by Renata Ferrari on Sketchfab.

Map, Monitor and Model

The idea was to map, monitor and model the coral reefs and other marine ecosystems in three dimensions. According to Dr Renata, “If

Assc Prof William Figueira works with Dr Ferrari on the reef restoration project.

you can create a 3D map, then you can measure it because you literally have a map of the corals on your computer. With 3D-printed reefs, you’re providing the exact same structure that an actual reef provides, because we got the models from the reefs before they are bleached. We are literally replicating it.”

So far, the team has 3D printed coral prostheses and tested them in the lab for durability. “Our research indicates that the structure provided by 3D printed artificial reefs would provide fish with excellent an excellent habitat where they can shelter from predators and eat the algae that kill the coral reefs,” says Dr Ferrari. “In addition, this would provide a structure for real coral to regenerate.”

Dr Renata and Professor Figueira hope to plant some of the 3D-printed corals in the Reef this year, depending on the receipt of about A$150,000 in funding. It would take about A$1.5 million over five years to carry out a full restoration project, mainly on the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef, where most of the bleaching has occurred.

Healthy corals on a reef flat constitute a rich environment for underwater fauna and flora. Photo: Great Barrier Reef Maritime Park Authority.

Healthy corals on a reef flat constitute a rich environment for underwater fauna and flora. Photo: Great Barrier Reef Maritime Park Authority.

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