3D Innovareef: Sculpture to Restore Thai Marine Ecosystem

The Veterinary Medical Aquatic Animal Research Center of Excellence  (VMARCE), Chulalongkorn University has created Innovareef—lifelike cement-based structures, convenient for planula settlement and growth, accelerating recovery of the coral reef ecosystem, promoting eco-tourism as well as functioning as smart stations for marine environmental monitoring.

Beautiful coral reefs in Thai seas have been gradually deteriorating due to global warming that causes coral bleaching, in addition to certain human activities without proper control and environmental consciousness.  Currently, only one-third of the beautiful and perfect coral reefs remain! If we don’t solve this problem now, there will be no marine food sources, dive sites for nature study, and tourism income sources for the next generations.  

The past solutions of artificial reefs made from used car tires, tanks, PVC pipes, and cement cubes have created visual pollution as they do not blend in with the underwater nature. Besides, these artificial reefs are occasionally drifted out by tidal forces, submerged by the sand, or decomposed into microplastic garbage.

In nature conservation, methods are as important as results,” notes Associate Professor Dr. Nantarika Chansue, Director of VMARCE and Head of Ornamental Aquatic Animal and Aquatic Animals for Conservation Research Unit (OAAC), Faculty of Veterinary Science, Chulalongkorn University, on the concepts of Innovareef for the conservation of coral reefs and marine beauty.

Associate Professor Dr. Nantarika Chansue

“We’re trying to create lifelike artificial reefs with lifelike branches to promote settlement of planula and pores for tidal forces resistance and habitats for marine species. Our Innovareef will help accelerate the recovery of coral reefs to match their destruction rate.”

How does Innovareef work in place of natural coral reefs?

Naturally, coral reefs function as barriers against strong tides on stormy days, habitats for various marine species, and sources of food for humans. Proper maintenance of their condition and diversity means the assurance of the food sources for our stomach and mind.

Corals are marine invertebrates with soft bodies and calcium carbonate forming their hard skeletons. The baby coral is called “planula” which drifts along water currents and settles on a hard surface like rocks or reefs to continue its growth. Other types of corals that reproduce asexually grow shoots and branch out depending on their species.  

Hence, the research team has modeled the Innovareef based on the nature of corals. Dr. Nantarika explains how the Innovareef differs from other artificial reefs as follows:

  1. Coral nutrient coating – Innovareed is coated with calcium and phosphate nutrients that corals need to thrive. Collected data indicates that the planula settled on the Innovareef grow faster than those on natural reefs by approximately three to four centimeters a year. (Naturally, corals grow extremely slowly. For example, hard corals grow about one centimeter a year. In other words, we have to wait for one century to see a one-meter-diameter hard coral!)
  2. Biomimicry – Flat surfaces of Innovareef accommodate the settlement of planula; its holes and cavities serve as habitats and hiding places for fish, benthic animals, and marine invertebrates.
  3. Resistance to tidal forces – With hydrodynamics technology, Innovareef’s design enhances its resistance to tidal forces. This is different from other artificial reefs that are made of more delicate materials, often submerged by the sand and drifting out by tidal forces, becoming marine pollution.
Innovareef – lifelike artificial coral reefs

Smart Station: Global Warming Monitoring Coral Reefs

The research team has installed marine environment monitoring equipment on the Innovareef so that it becomes a smart station that can, for example, measure the water temperature, tidal forces, and potential of Hydrogen (pH). 

“These measurements benefit not only the marine species in the Innovareef but also the entire coral reef where the Innovareef is installed. As we all know that coral bleaching is caused by the rising temperature of seawater causing corals to die. With these smart stations, we now have sufficient data to save the entire coral reef”, says Dr. Nantarika.

Background of Innovareef

Dr. Nantarika explains that knowledge from different fields is essential in the creation of lifelike Innovareef. For example, in 3D Cement Printing, the pH of the selected type of cement is close to that of seawater. The design concept is that of Lego—easily assembled and disassembled blocks—to facilitate the transportation of Innovareef from the production site to the sea.

The parts of dissemble of Innovareef

“The team has been through stages of design, molding, creating uneven surfaces, casting branches separately as well as performing tests on vortex, sinking of the base, and resistance to tidal waves both in our laboratory and at sea, before we have the Innovareef that’s resistant to tidal waves, sturdy, not submerged into the sand, with small vortex around it and branches to enhance natural settlements of planula.”

Initially, the VMARCE designed only one size of Innovareef—100 X 160 X 50 (width X length X height) centimeters. Subsequently, the “Love the Sea” project by Earth Agenda Foundation—in collaboration with the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR), Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE); Faculty of Veterinary Science, Chulalongkorn University; and Siam Cement Group (SCG)—used this prototype to further develop five  more types of Innovareef, namely:

  1. Brain coral: 150 x 160 x 56 centimeters;
  2. Brain coral: 160 x 160 x 65 centimeters;
  3. Barrel sponge: 150 x 200 x 95 centimeters;
  4. Marine sponge 1: 50 x 50 x 65 centimeters; and
  5. Marine sponge 2: 85 x 85 x 65 centimeters.

Building Homes for Corals: Restoring Hope for the Sea

Since 2020, the research team has installed several Innovareefs along the coasts of Chonburi province, including Si Chang Island, Lan Island, and Sattahip.

“The area suitable for the installation of Innovareef is less than 10 meters deep with exposure to sunlight and, importantly, some remaining natural coral reefs. These will enhance the natural settlement and growth of planula.”

Transportation and installation of Innovareef are simple and convenient: each set of Innovareef comprises three units—the main component and two attachments.

“The Innovareef is not too large. It’s light-weighted and can be carried by anyone thus saving transportation costs. You can simply put it at any desired location in the sea and then dive down to put all the units together to complete the Innovareef.” 

Not even five minutes afterward, fish and several marine creatures start to come in to survey and make it their new habitat, leading to biodiversity around the Innovareef.”

More importantly, the postinstallation data indicates that the settlement and growth rates of planula on the Innovareef are better than those on other artificial reefs, says Dr. Nantarika with a smile.

Consequently, the research team is confident that Innovareef will help accelerate the recovery of coral reefs and the return of marine health. A worthwhile investment, the total cost of materials, production, transportation, and complete installation of an Innovareef is only about THB 26,000!

With these benefits, it’s not a surprise that Innovareef won the National Innovation Awards (NIAWARDS) 2020 for Product and Service Design.

Thai Innovareef: A New Paradise for Divers

Not only is Innovareef helping the recovery of the marine ecosystem, but it is also returning underwater paradise to tourists as, according to Dr. Nantarika, Innovareef formations can be developed into ecotourism attractions.” This concept has been well supported by the DMCR, SCG, and Chula. 

Coral reef tourists whore not yet qualified divers and may unintentionally damage natural coral reefs, new divers or others who want to study the undersea world, including sea walkers and snorkelers, can dive to Innovareef formations. Theyre very lifelike and a variety of marine species live there. This is an example of marine ecotourism thats causing no harm to the sea”, elaborates Dr. Nantarika, again with a smile.

The Thai Innovareef formations may turn out to be vibrant eco-tourism spots attracting both local and foreign tourists, generating income for the country.

The Future: Next Generations of Innovareef

As for the future creation of Innovareef, Dr. Nantarika plans to “lower the production cost and add more details so that it looks more like natural reefs.”

“For the next generations of Innovareef, we’ll come up with a more specific design for each marine species in the area. For example, giant groupers prefer cave-like habitats and so will our Innovareef be.”

To further develop the Innovareef, the research team is currently working with Chula’s Faculty of Engineering in incorporating Nanotechnology in protecting the Innovareef from global warming effects. 

“If the sea temperature rises to a certain level that’s harmful to the corals, the nanoparticle coating the Innovareef will automatically activate and release a substance to prevent the corals from dying.”

Innovareef is the hope for the effective recovery of natural coral reefs. It may take a decade or two, or half a century but that’s better than doing nothing. At least, our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy the marine beauty.

“Even though nature has been substantially destroyed, humans can still restore and recreate it with innovations. We hope that Innovareef will be a better alternative in the restoration of the marine ecosystem, stimulating the local economy, fisheries, and eco-tourism,” concludes Dr. Nantarika.

Those interested in joining the development of Innovareef or using it in the restoration of marine ecology, please contact the Veterinary Medical Aquatic Animals Research Center of Excellence (VMARCE), Faculty of Veterinary Science, Chulalongkorn University. Tel: +66 (0) 2251 8887, +66 (0) 2218 9510. Email: vmarc.clinic@gmail.com

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