Mumbai teen creates 3D-printed coral reef in Pondicherry
His classmates at BD Somani School don’t know it yet, but Siddharth Pillai, 17, is a coastal crusader. Over the last year, Pillai quietly designed and patented a system of interlocking blocks, assembling them along the Pondicherry coast to create India’s first 3D-printed modular artificial reef. The reef – the largest section spans 20m – was installed two weeks ago and experts estimate that it will start hosting marine life in roughly a month.
Pillai, an avid diver, has seen first-hand how rising ocean temperatures have bleached coral outcrops. “They lose colour, crumble and die in 30 days. Seeing dead coral on the sea floor is disgusting and heartbreaking,” he says.
Bleached coral also stops hosting marine life, and erodes shorelines, compounding ecological problems. “The fact that no one in India knows this or was doing anything about it gave me anxiety,” he adds.
Pillai was looking for a way to rebuild reefs when his father suggested 3D printing. “I took a 45-day course in May 2018, working out a way to make the model porous, so coral can latch on to it.” He filled in the prototype mould with cement mix at home “wrecking the balcony”.
But Pillai eventually crowdfunded Rs 2 lakh to get 200 11kg blocks produced and sent to Pondicherry. There, the dive centre, Temple Adventures, helped set them up in the sea.
The reef is cast in a dolomite-cement mix, and since the blocks connect to each other, it’s easier to build, assemble and scale.
“Artificial reefs are not new,” says Suneha Jagannathan, a marine biologist working on restoring coral and marine habitats. The first was deployed in Bahrain in 2012; the largest, a ceramic lattice, stands in the Maldives waters.
“But in India, this is the first, and it shows potential for soft-coral growth. It’s also a rare chance to see how a new ecosystem develops, what comes first, how it evolves and how marine life supports itself.”
Pillai knows that his reef can only do so much. It’s a skeleton upon which polyps can grow, it can’t arrest or reverse the bleaching of actual coral. “For that, we need to stop the warming of the oceans, in the long run.”
He’s christened his project Bennington’s Reef, to honour Chester Bennington, American musician and Linkin Park frontman who died in 2017. Pillai is 17 after all.