Can we save dying coral reefs by 3D printing more?

Can we save the coral reefs by 3D printing more? Not reefs themselves, of course: those are built by living creatures, the coral … but by 3D printing the substrate that corals can attach to and kickstarting the process of reef construction.

In this TechFirst, we chat with marine biologist Astrid Kramer and 3D printing expert Nadia Fani about their crowdfunded startup, Coastruction.

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Scientists say we’ve lost half the world’s coral reefs, and that puts a quarter of the world’s fish at risk. Astrid and Nadia are trying to help reverse that, with the help of 3D printing and local groups all over the planet. Their proposed 3D printer uses sand and other local materials, and can adapt the size and shape of the substrate to local needs as determined by depth, tide, waves, shoreline, and more.

Watch, subscribe, and get a full transcript of our conversation below … or check out my post on Forbes.

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: Scientists say we’ve lost half the world’s coral reefs, and that puts a quarter of the world’s fish at risk. But could we help fix that? Could we literally 3D print more coral? Today, we’re chatting with Nadia Fani and Astrid Kramer. Nadia’s a software engineer and a 3D printing expert. Astrid is a marine biologist. Together, they founded Coastruction to rebuild the world’s reefs. 

Nadia Fani: Hi. 

Astrid Kramer: Hi, John. 

Nadia Fani: Hi, welcome everybody. 

John Koetsier: Let’s ask Nadia first, perhaps … how do you 3D print new reefs? 

Nadia Fani, Co-Founder at Coastruction

Nadia Fani: Yeah, that’s not easy, but it’s possible. Well, I start developing a lot of passion in 3D printing already in 2015. And 3D printing has two main technology: one is extrusion and the other one is a powder bed or binder jetting.

So these two main technology, they both fascinated me a lot and they bring a lot of plus and cons, both of them. But I followed the path of powder bed technology, and this allowed me to use freedom of material and freedom of shape.

And when I saw the possibility of this technology and the ability to print any shape you could imagine, then you know, your brain kind of open up and lots of possibilities they are opening in front of you and say, ‘I can make everything.’

Of course that’s not possible, but of course, it is … if you believe in it. And then my path brought me to meet Astrid that she had this passion in artificial reef, and protect the ocean, and restore coral reef. And we did, well, we did kind of a very good match there because, hey, I can print anything.

Artificial reefs need to have natural shape, and this is possible. 

John Koetsier: So, let’s bring Astrid in, in a moment, but let’s dive into the technology. How does this 3D printer work? What’s it look like? What kind of size are we talking here? And what are you actually printing when you’re printing “new reef.” 

Nadia Fani: So, our technology is based on cement materials.

But, the machine has freedom of material, as I said before. And the beauty of it is that the technology works very simply, with just a dry powder material and a liquid binder. So, for a liquid binder, we use just water … or even sea water if you want to go really far and crazy. But as a dry powder, you can use any powder that is reacting and solidified with a liquid binder.

What we found very cool and easy to use is cement, of course. Cement is really powerful material, and it’s not just the classic porcelain cement that you use for construction, but you have a lot of variety of different kinds of cement — natural cement, Roman cement, Sorel cement — all with different reactions and different possibilities. What we found that you can use a little amount of cement, combine it with any powder or sand that you want, even recycled concrete, or coral rubble, or sand from the beach of the location where you want to restore a reef, and you can feed it to the machine and then create a new structure to be installed.

The machine is really simple. I go directly in the technology. It works in layers, so you just lay down a layer of powder material — anything you want, mix it with cement and sand — and then you pour water where you need, where you need the reaction, the object to come and harden. And then you go layer by layer, at the end you have a scaffolding material, you can just dig in and have your object coming out. 

John Koetsier: Interesting. Let’s bring in Astrid here. And, so you’re building a reef, clearly you’re building it in … not in the water [laughing], because you’re depositing powdered material, that sort of thing. What are you actually building? What does it look like? And how do you put it in the ocean? 

Astrid Kramer, Co-Founder at Coastruction

Astrid Kramer: Yeah, so what we’re building is the structure that corals can use to settle on. Corals have two different stages in their life, and one is the larval stage where they flow through the water and they settle, they sink, and they land on a hard substrate, and that’s where they grow into a colony.

So what we build is a substrate for corals to grow on. And basically, as Nadia said, we have freedom of shape. We could go any shape we want.

And what we saw in reef restoration is that there are a lot of different techniques, a lot of different solutions, and some of them work great … but every reef should be site-specific, because every location is different. Every location has different hydrodynamics, has a different use of the area, has different fish composition, has different algae species, has different coral species.

And each individual, it’s like everybody has a different house. You don’t feel comfortable in every situation. So, I think the freedom of shape is quite useful to create reefs, because you can take into account habitat requirements of not just the coral but also the herbivorous fish that live nearby and that keep the corals clean.

You can take into account maybe the function of wave breaking, of providing habitat for octopus or sea urchins, also very interesting species when you look at reef ecology. 

John Koetsier: Why are you looking at this as your next major project? Why are reefs so important? 

Astrid Kramer: Well, they are important for me because I’m fascinated by them, but they are very important to everybody in the world, ’cause they provide — they’re very efficient in coastal protection. They reduce the wave energy by 95% to 97%, like, a coral reef can do that. They provide a lot of fish for people. They provide the opportunity to look at them for tourism, for recreation.

And we’re also more likely to find new medicine in reef than anywhere on land. So the combined function of, well, of course also the biodiversity function, they support a whole system. Plus the coastal protection function and the tourism and the food makes them essential to a lot of people. 

John Koetsier: So we’re going to go back to Nadia in a moment and talk about scale because there’s some significant scale that you need here.

But, I want to ask, are you building coral reefs in different places than they might’ve been historically? Because we’ve seen coral bleaching events, right? So we’ve seen reefs that have lived for millennia where they are, and all of a sudden it’s too hot or something’s wrong in the water, and they’re either moving farther south or they’re just dying out.

Where are you building them? And are you building them in different locations than historically we’ve seen coral reefs?

Astrid Kramer: I think, 3D printing in the stage where it’s at right now, I don’t believe we can rebuild all the coral reefs in the world. I think it’s, the scale is way too big.

But what we can do at some places is two things: it’s buy time by placing these structures, we can protect fragile low-lying areas that are suffering from erosion or flooding because the reefs are dying. And we are placing substrate for research purposes, because a lot of scientists are working extremely hard to find those species that can withstand higher temperatures, and they will grow into new reefs that can adapt to climate change.

And I think that’s a very interesting purpose. And I know that when you place artificial reefs in a location where there is no coral, where there is no fish, it will be very hard to grow a new reef.

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Astrid Kramer: You need to look at the whole — you need to look at the bigger picture. So is there a potential for reef ecology? Then yes, you can try, and it’s a tool to come to healthy reefs again. 

John Koetsier: Let’s bring Nadia back in and talk about that scale … reefs are massive. I’m not just talking about the Great Barrier Reef or anything like that, but there’s literally square kilometers, maybe cubic kilometers of reef material. How can you possibly 3D print at a scale that is effective and makes a difference?

Nadia Fani: Well, like Astrid said, of course, restore all the reef on the world is quite, let’s say, not really a scalable thing…

John Koetsier: Yes.

Nadia Fani: …but, indeed, everything can help.

So even if you start on a small scale, so if you, a square kilometer already, it could have a great impact. It could really protect a coast, a beach, a resort, like an area where there is a community living and they need protection because the sea rising it is a problem, it’s not just me.

So, already if we can print a barrier or an artificial reef that can restore locally the marine life and the coral reef and the protection, it’s already really, really valuable. And if you don’t have it, the consequences, they are something that you really don’t — don’t even want to try to understand it or measure, honestly. So, what we are doing right now is start with the first machine that is going to be able to print a cubic meter to start with testing location, of course, and with interoperable solutions.

So what we can do to the freedom of shape, you can print different modules, depending on what you need and where you need it. And you can combine it together and place it directly in the ocean and click them together, let’s say, a sort of Lego str ucture but with unique pieces, because of course anything, you can feed to the machine any design you want, it doesn’t really cost anything more to have a beautiful shape. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Nadia Fani: And thanks to that you can cover a big part of the reef. And already, if you have a few meters in depth of an artificial reef, it can create a lot of protection for a coastline, and it can create a lot of surface for corals and marine life to grow back.

John Koetsier: And I’m guessing that once you start, then the corals that come there and colonize will build themselves as well, correct? I mean, if it’s just a sandy area they don’t really have a place to attach, I’m assuming, but you’re building a solid place it can come attach, and they can grow off of that. Is that correct?

Nadia Fani: Indeed, yeah, exactly. It’s correct. And then of course, we are busy also with testing with durability and scalability and stability. But indeed, if you have a substrate that is made of natural material and natural growth, we will just try from the top of it.

Then you automatically create something that will stay there forever, because the corals, when it’s growing atop of a structure, is creating a massive structure on top of something. So even if that something will erode, or crack, or damage in time, then you will create an ecosystem that will outlive that.

John Koetsier: In terms of scaling the venture that you’re working on, I know you’re thinking of sending the 3D printer to where it’s needed and building in place using local materials and all that stuff … is there kind of a community aspect of that as well, where you provide maybe the technology, the know-how, and you recruit local organizations to be involved in their own beaches and their own coral reefs?

Nadia Fani: Yes, that’s one of our goals and it’s part of our vision.

We don’t think that we can know better what someone needs than actually where someone lives. If you have a local community that lives and grows in front of a real coral reef, then you see it … every day. You know what it looked like before and after the coral bleaching. You know what it needs, where it’s needed, and how it’s needed.

So, yeah, our goal is totally to include community, and the involvement of them will be a key in our projects, everywhere in the world. 

John Koetsier: And that’s probably a scaling factor for you as well, right? Because you can’t be everywhere. You’re probably not going to build an organization of 500,000 people that can go globally. But if you can partner with, you know, half a million people over the course of a period of time, that could be really, really interesting. You’re doing a crowdfunding project right now. Talk about that briefly. 

Nadia Fani: Yeah, we opened our crowdfunding middle of December. Well, to ask indeed funding to create our first machine, because we are a bit on the struggle of the chicken of the egg problem of a startup so… [laughter]. Yeah, we have a great idea and we have no doubts that it will bring lots of good.

And we have, we are already working, like you said, John, on creating this connection with a lot of people born wild and we are collaborating with Hawaii, Fiji, and Seychelles where we installed some of our packs, samples structure, with Nature Seychelles. And we are doing our best to create more of these connections, to have more partners everywhere in the world. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Nadia Fani: But, yeah, we started the crowdfunding because to really start our company would need a machine. Nobody can actually do an artificial reef without a machine that uses small scale like the one that we are having right now, and we are using for all the testing that we’re doing.


But we need, like you said, scale is really important, so … to have the first machine to run the first real project, a pilot project if you wanted to stay in location with a function of wave reduction energy and coral restoration and marine life repopulation, then you need a machine that is covering at least a cubic meter of structure. And that’s why we start our crowdfunding to ask help from everybody out there that can chip in.

John Koetsier: It’s interesting as well, if I’m not mistaken, you’re based in the Netherlands, which has “low” in its name, “Nether,’ right? 

Nadia Fani: Yeah.

John Koetsier: And obviously you’re very familiar in the Netherlands with climate change, sea level rise, all that stuff. Is that one of the reasons why this came top of mind? 

Nadia Fani: Well, I’m not Dutch [laughter]… surprise, surprise. But yeah, my house, what I’m calling right now my house is based in Florida, it is minus four meters below the sea level. So, it is indeed quite an urgent matter that the Netherlands needs to face for the sea level rising.

John Koetsier: Excellent.

Nadia Fani: We are located on Rotterdam. It’s one of — I think it’s biggest in Europe. I don’t want to say something that is not correct, but it’s a huge harbor and is going to bring those connections with all over the world with just a ship ride away from us. So, that’s a great location, a great partnership we can create here. Lots of marine contractors as well. So it’s a great opportunity and I think that Dutch people, they have a lot of experience with water management, for sure.

John Koetsier: Apparently, yes [laughter & crosstalk].

Nadia Fani: I’m Italian. I grew up in Italy, mostly of my life, but we don’t have [inaudible]…

John Koetsier: Italians have some experience with water as well. I believe there’s a very famous city…

Nadia Fani: Yeah. 

John Koetsier: There’s been a massive, I wouldn’t say dam built around, but [laughing] exactly … we’re talking about Venice, of course. I’m going to bring in Astrid real quick, and something just clicked here, I should know this, but I introduced you as Astrid Kramer [KRAYmer] which is a North American way, a Canadian — I’m Canadian, but I have Dutch roots, and it should actually be Kramer [KRAHmer], correct?

Astrid Kramer: In Dutch, it is Kramer [KRAHmer]. Yeah.

John Koetsier: Yes, exactly, exactly. 

Astrid Kramer: That’s okay. 

John Koetsier: Talk to me about your vision, cast your eye out, look in your crystal ball five years out, you’re super successful, things are happening … where do you want this tech to be? Where do you want this project to be? What do you want to have accomplished? 

Astrid Kramer: Well we would very much like our solution to be all over the world, printing as much as possible, pumping out the modules and building reefs.

Besides that, I think it would be amazing if we could develop or contribute to a community. The reef restoration community is already out there, but I think as a personal goal, it would mean a lot to me if we could help people bringing together to collaborate more in this reef restoration challenge that we have worldwide.

Because there are a lot of people doing their best for reef restoration, for building reefs, studying coral genetics, having coral nurseries, and I think this is a challenge that we need to do altogether. And we would like to help people by providing the habitat, but also by bringing people together. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Astrid Kramer: So that would be a really nice achievement, I think as well, and to raise awareness also with other people that they might not know a whole lot about coral reefs, but we would love to spread the word and help them, or inspire them to help everybody in this challenge. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Well, I want to thank both of you for taking this time. Really do appreciate it and wish you the most success. Have a great day! 

Astrid Kramer/Nadia Fani: [Simultaneously] Thank you so much. 

Nadia Fani: Thank you, have a good day.

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