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Milano Ocean Week: artificial reefs, the step to restore the environment through 3D printing

Coastruction’s research aims to overlay living corals with artificial reefs in the damaged and affected seas 

Why are coral reefs key for the ecosystem?

The degradation of the marine environment and corals is a real issue. Although the causes include human behavior, no one has taken action to limit this problem. Being part of a natural system, it is hard to find a lasting solution for the maintenance of corals. Nadia Fani is the co-founder of Coastruction. 

She explains how often, the same people who live in contact with these environments do not respect them. One of the reasons for the destruction of corals is overfishing. Other causes include extreme fishing techniques, such as the use of dynamite that leads to the death of reefs. There are several reasons for safeguarding this type of marine environment. It can affect the lives of humans, as well as marine inhabitants. 

Coral reefs are like natural breakwaters, she explains. They protect coastlines from erosion and flooding. «They have the ability to reduce the strength and power of the waves by ninety-seven percent. The barriers grow healthy and get close to the surface», Fani specifies. Harming them can bring water closer to population centers, which are at risk of flooding.

Printed artificial reefs, the idea of Coastruction

The idea was born during her studies in computer science and her career development in the 3D printing field. Her experience at DShape allowed her to understand the usage of powder layer printing. This pioneering company permitted her to develop her design from a basic technology model. Fani then created Coastruction, together with Astrid Kramer. 

They evolved the concept of 3D printing towards the natural environment and materials. The printing technology developed was designed for the production of corals with different types of materials. The goal is barrier restoration in the geographic locations most affected. For this reason, there is a collaboration with governments and institutional bodies to implement the construction. 

They also hope that these collaborations will have a positive effect on citizen behavior to protect installations. The rehabilitation includes a section of the crest of the barriers to dissipate long distance wave energy. Additionally, it involves a section of back reefs to tamper redeveloping waves. In order for these structures to be suitable, they are implemented within living coral reefs. In addition, the material used aims to exploit the concrete circularly.

Coastruction Reefs development through 3D printing

The technique employed is powder bed technology, using the concrete material explained above. «Coastruction technology allows a zero-waste printing process with concrete-like materials and only water as activator», Fani explains. This method allows you to build very precise objects and geometric shapes, while also saving material. 

The design for each coral is designed from its natural form, according to the ecosystem it will be placed in. «The printing process does not require support material for these complex shapes. The unbound powder surrounds the printed shape», the company points out. There are three macro-steps in the construction of this 3D design. Printing is done using a print head, which moves over a layer of dry powder mixture. 

Water is deposited as a selective cement activator. When the water is infused into the dry mix, solid areas are formed. After one layer is printed, the print layer is lowered. Then, another layer of dry mix is spread over the entire base. Over time, the construction builds through each water instilled stratum adhering to the previous one. «Once the print job is finished, the result is a block of loose powder with the printed structure contained inside. For post-processing, the part will be freed of unbound powder and placed to cure.»

Recycled concrete for 3D printing process

Fani explains how in developing the technology, they were attentive to the circularity and sustainable use of the material. Referring to the ecosystem in which the product is placed, most of the selected materials should belong to nature. Studies on concrete have highlighted its impact on global man-made carbon emissions. 

For this reason, an optimized recipe created to reduce emissions was made. This involves re-using some material and recycle old concrete. This particular 3D printing process does not require the use of chemicals or high temperatures. 

«The raw materials stay in their original condition until the infusion takes place. This eliminates the production of waste since loose material will be used in the next print. Unsatisfying prints can be shredded and reused as well», the company points out. This type of production allows for circularity and continuous recycling of the materials used.

Coastruction Materials Lampoon Magazine
Coastruction Materials

How to develop the natural resources – Coastruction 

No chemicals or additives are required to ensure printing in this process. «Coastruction’s technology comes with freedom of material. This means the possibility to use any type of liquid binder with similar viscosity of water. It also means using any type of cement and any type of granular fill material», the company specifies. 

As a ‘glue’, the same sea water can be used or water found on site. Limestone, different varieties of Portland cement or any other type of cement can be used. The fill material is the most flexible in terms of choice. 

There are different types of aggregates that are available in the area. These include sand or residual shells, dredged material, and recycled cement. Fani explains how they prefer to use locally sourced materials to maintain low transportation and therefore emissions. The positive side of this is the lowering of costs for these productions.

Local economies benefit in the implementation of coral reefs

A key aspect of the project, Fani says, is community involvement. The aim is to educate and involve them in the process so that they can respect the restored barriers. The aspect that is noticed is the improvement of biodiversity and fishing yield on the project site. The printers, Fani continues, can be transported on site for direct coral building. 

This also avoids the need to transport large quantities of corals, and therefore CO2 emissions, when the product is finished. Community involvement also creates collaborations at the level of local knowledge exchange, which is used in project development. «When we print, we hire local staff and train them to operate the printers. Because we use local resources, we buy the components of our reefs locally», the company explains.

On site building and positioning of reefs

The local communities of the country participating in the project are involved in a direct way. The machinery that allows the creation of these corals is transported to the place where they will later be installed. The creation therefore takes place close to their placement in the waters. 

Fani explains that Coastruction is not responsible for the installation itself. In fact, the start-up not only has agreements with local governments but also with other companies. They already deal with the management of the marine territory. An example could be the various companies that own platforms. Fani explains that there are different methodologies for placing corals. 

Even in this case, they try to do it in a way that is consistent with nature. Sometimes the help of divers is essential when smaller parts may be involved. In other cases, the coral reef is lowered along with a balloon that slowly descends with it until it bursts. Another methodology involves making use of marine features. When corals are placed on the seabed, artificial and natural ones are interlocked by themselves. In this step, the marine movements are fundamental to facilitate this union.

Building with nature philosophy

The start-up had adopted the approach focused on nature-based solutions. In recent years, many issues related to marine environments have come up. Through this, several discoveries in the ecological field have been made. Costal engineering has combined its expertise with those discoveries to be able to adopt proper design techniques. 

This philosophy is called, according to Coastruction, Building with Nature, Engineering with Nature or Working with Nature. «Building with Nature (BwN) is a design approach to develop Nature-based Solutions (NBS) for water-related infrastructure. These include flood defense, sustainable port development and for the restoration of ecosystems. It harnesses the forces of nature to benefit the economy, society and the environment», says their website. 

Coastruction operates with that philosophy in order to create sustainable infrastructures. The solution it aims to adopt are in line with some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These include responsible consumption and production, climate action and life below water. 

Coastruction 

Start-up founded by Nadia Fani, Tech Lead, and Astrid Kramer, Marine Biologist, in Rotterdam. It was born from the idea of finding a solution to the degradation of the marine environment and corals.

Chiara Narciso

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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