Can Lego-Like Coral Reefs Rebuild Marine Ecosystems?

Legos were the inspiration for a new kind of innovative artificial reefs. Paul Wilkinson [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Coral reefs can take centuries to form naturally because they require the buildup of calcium-rich coral skeletons beneath them. This is part of what makes the world's largest coral reefs such natural wonders. It's also what makes their continuing decline around the planet such an alarming tragedy.

Climate change, pollution, unsustainable fishing practices and coastal development are currently destroying reefs at a far faster rate than they can build back up naturally. But there's hope, and it comes in the unlikely form of Legos.

Alex Goad, an industrial design student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, has invented an artificial reef system that can be assembled much like the toy building blocks we played with as children, reports Australian Geographic. Because his design is modular, and because pieces can be clamped together in a variety of different ways, artificial reef habitats can be endlessly customizable to suit the local needs of the ecosystem. It also means that reefs can be built faster than ever before.

Goad calls his system the Modular Artificial Reef Structure, or MARS, and each module is built from concrete and coated with textured ceramic (which is specially designed to provide the perfect surface for clinging marine organisms). Each module is also designed so that it can be easily assembled locally.

"The idea is that once the MARS arms are transported to the deployment area...the hollow ceramic form is filled with marine concrete and composite rebar, utilizing local labor and concrete manufacturers," explained Goad.

In a way, Goad's invention is the ultimate plaything for geeky reef conservationists everywhere. They're designed to work like Legos, sure, but because they're customizable, researchers can also use them to study how different layouts affect coral growth. In this way the MARS system can increase the effectiveness and efficiency of artificial reefs.

Goad is also currently working on a system so that custom-designed reefs can be printed out using large-scale 3-D printers. He has teamed up with marine scientist David Lennon from Sustainable Oceans International to form the nonprofit company Reef Design Lab, in order to better distribute his innovative reef system.

"Reefs do naturally repair themselves but this can take decades," said Goad. "Just like how we re-plant trees we must start re-planting reef environments."