by Megan Treacy: The technology behind 3D printing can be used for more than just making tiny plastic objects. Scientists are applying the concept to everything from printing tools from moon rock to now creating artificial reefs. Reef Arabia, a team of artificial reef designers that includes reef experts from Bahrain as well as members from Australia’s Sustainable Oceans International, has started 3D printing reef formations and sinking them off Bahrain’s coast, where overfishing has had a major impact on the health of marine life there.

The group has submerged almost 3,000 concrete reef balls (seen above) and other custom-designed structures in the area, but up until recently they were using concrete molds to accomplish the task. Looking for a better, faster way, the team partnered with 3D printing and rapid prototyping specialists from DShape to start printing reef formations using a non-toxic patented sandstone material.

“Sandstone, unlike concrete, is closer to a natural earth rock and has a neutral pH surface which makes it more attractive to coral larvae looking for a home,” says David Lennon, Reef Arabia team member and director at SOI. He added that the “bumpy, knobby bits” on the sandstone units also provide refuge for the common snapper while generating current eddies and multiple horizontal surfaces that attract coral larvae.

“With 3D printing we can get closer to natural design because of its ability to produce very organic shapes and almost lay down material similar to how nature does it,” Lennon says.

On top of those advantages is the speed and control that 3D printing offers. Small variations are easily made, which helps build diversity into the reefs — that’s essential for attracting a diversity of species — and replication is far faster than with molds. The team can even generate a 3D image file of a natural reef and then print it.

The prototype reefs took about a week to design and only a day to print and the reefs can be printed four at a time. Watch the video below to see more about the artificial reef program.