Can 3D printing help with coral reef restoration?

Abu Dhabi's ADQ-backed nature tech start-up Archireef has high hopes for coral reef solutions

The new 3D-printed reef tiles are designed using terracotta clay, a natural material. Leslie Pableo / The National
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Could 3D-printed clay tiles made in Abu Dhabi be the solution to help restoring coral reefs around the world?

That is what Archireef, a nature technology start-up founded in Hong Kong with expanded operations in the UAE, is hoping for.

The company showcased its patented 3D-printed Reef Tiles and how they work at Deep Dive Dubai, an indoor diving attraction that hosts the world’s deepest dive pool.

Abu Dhabi's investment holding company ADQ is an investor in Archireef, and the start-up is hosted by Hub71, the emirate's global technology ecosystem accelerator.

Currently, the reef tiles are used in the waters off Hong Kong and the UAE. However, Archireef is looking to eventually place them near Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries.

About 160 reef tiles were placed near Um Khorah island, in Abu Dhabi's Al Dhafra region, in March, with the help of ADQ and the support of Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.

“You could see the immediate impact,” said Deniz Tekerek, Archireef's chief commercial officer and co-founder. “We've seen fish go for shelter near the tiles; we've seen sea urchins as well … it's very encouraging.”

Mr Tekerek said although the company, founded in 2020, had registered success in terms of its placement of the tiles and interest, it was sometimes an uphill battle trying to draw attention to coral reef health as opposed to other environmental causes.

“They are not easily visible and, I guess, less interesting than trees for some,” he said.

Clients range from private companies to governments to NGOs, with Mr Tekerek emphasising a particular area that he felt was the path to success.

“The key to unlocking growth faster for the sake of coral reefs being restored is the private sector,” he said.

Living coral reefs, skeletal-like invertebrates, are considered to be the building blocks for marine life and healthy oceans.

However, they have been under increased threat from human activities, greenhouse gases, water pollution and rising global temperatures, among other environmental challenges.

They cover less than 1 per cent of the ocean floor but are home to more than a quarter of marine life, according to the UN Environment Programme, which also warns that there could be a 70 per cent to 90 per cent decrease in coral reefs by 2050.

“The loss of foundational species like corals that provide important habitat can have devastating consequences and knock-on effects,” said Gabriel Grimsditch, a marine ecosystems expert at the UNEP.

Flo Janin, Archireef's vice president of sustainable strategy, said the start-up is bullish about the abundance of opportunities required to realise goals in the coming months.

Leading up to Cop28, there are a lot of sustainability programmes focused on land, but we would like more to be done collectively about ocean protection and restoration,” she said.

“We provide turnkey solutions to allow companies to get more involved.”

It takes about an hour to make a single 3D-printed tile, although Mr Tekerek said the time taken to manufacture the tiles had been methodically coming down.

“Our goal is to get to 50 tiles per day within the next three to four months,” he said, in reference to the company's continued efforts to scale up production.

The tiles are designed using terracotta clay, a natural material.

The finished product allows for intricate and consistent patterns that can help to grow and sustain coral reefs, Archireef said.

After the 3D-printing process is completed, the tiles are then installed with the help of divers from the local communities.

Within a few months of the tile being put in place, Archireef says the positive impact and reef development are visible.

The company also records video of the process that it later uses, with 3D headsets to show non-divers the progress and proof of concept.

It also offers educational opportunities through classes called Archireef Academy, an ocean literacy programme designed to instruct adults, youths and children.

In addition to the 3D-printed tiles, a major part of Archireef's business model revolves around subscriptions for companies, governments or organisations that seek to use the tiles.

The origins of Archireef can be traced back to 2014, when co-founder and chief executive Vriko Yu noticed that coral reefs she saw while diving near Hong Kong were disappearing.

“That little patch of coral that brought me so much joy, had completely disappeared,” said Ms Yu in a video.

Conversations and research with Dr David Baker, an Archireef co-founder and biology professor, led to their conclusion that 3D-printed structures would be one of the best solutions to help coral reefs grow faster.

The company says its 3D-printed reef tile technology is proprietary and also has a coral survivorship rate of 95 per cent.

As for Archireef's recent expansion into Abu Dhabi, Ms Yu said the presence broadly reflects the company's goals.

“One of the major reasons for us to choose Abu Dhabi as the first place for our expansion outside Hong Kong is that we really like the thriving start-up ecosystem here,” she said.

Updated: October 24, 2023, 9:07 AM