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How a Hong Kong startup is using 3D-printed tiles to help restore coral reefs

3D printed “tiles” help revive coral
3D printed “tiles” help revive coral around the world 03:37

A startup in Hong Kong is trying to help coral adapt to the problems humans have caused — with its innovative use of 3D printing and terracotta. 

More coral species live in part of Hong Kong's subtropical water than in the Caribbean, but the swath of the South China Sea used to boast even more natural beauty.

"We believe that this area was a coral paradise," David Baker, a coral ecologist at the University of Hong Kong, told CBS News. "Those who are still with us from the World War II generation, these people tell you the water was crystal clear, that there were coral everywhere."

But as Hong Kong industrialized, runoff and pollution bled into the waters.

So Baker co-founded Archireef, an eco-engineering startup, to rebuild the "paradise lost." 

His team, in a world-first, 3D-printed artificial reef tiles made from terracotta. They're non-toxic and biodegradable. The team placed the tiles on the sandy bottom of a protected bay and seeded them with living coral, and 95% survived in the past two years.

Asked how he came up with the idea, Baker said, "I just thought to myself one evening that, why not tile the sea floor like we would tile a kitchen or bathroom floor?"

The tiles could have global application for coral adaptation, with benefits to humanity as well as ocean life. Reefs protect homes and businesses, breaking up destructive waves from storms. More than 1 billion people depend on coral, which plays an essential role in fisheries, tourism and even medicine.

Scientists predict 70% to 90% of coral around the world will disappear in the next 20 years.

Archireef has now expanded to Abu Dhabi, where it has a new industrial 3D printer.

"We have our own eco-engineering facility," Vriko Yu, Archireef's other co-founder, said. 

Yu just moved from Hong Kong and aims to help coral move too. The Persian Gulf's waters can rise to 118 degrees — higher temperatures can kill.

"We can assist migration to help these corals move in deeper waters," Yu said.

Reef tiles can also help bridge isolated coral communities that are separated because of mass die-offs from climate change.

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