3D-printed bioplastics used to study coral reef complexity

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In Fiji, an embattled reef is getting new life thanks to biobased, 3D printed artificial coral developed at the University of Delaware.

Led by Associate Professor Danielle Dixson of UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment’s School of Marine Science and Policy, several test reefs were 3D printed, including one made from cornstarch and another printed using cornstarch combined with stainless steel powder.

“We were initially interested in investigating the role of topographic complexity—how many tiny holes there are for animals to hide in—on coral reefs,” said Dixson. “To do this study, we needed to come up with a way to create more and less topographically complex structures to test our research hypothesis. Using 3D printing allowed us to image a real coral and then add or subtract branches, keeping the relative size the same but changing how complex the print was.”

Coral reefs are under threat from climate change and damage from tourism and boats. Damaging events reduce reef complexity. “Topographic complexity is really important because it provides space for small fish, especially juveniles, and invertebrates to live in,” said Dixson.