What do ceramics and coral reefs have in common? Why would you even put those two subjects into the same sentence? Two words….Alex Goad! In the November 2015 issue of Ceramics Monthly, designer Alex Goad has crafted and developed MARS; a ceramic Modular Artificial Reef Structure material that will allow corals to grow at a faster pace in areas where coral reef ecosystems have almost been completely wiped out. This is especially important since corals can grow incredibly slow. MARS may prove to be a crucial key in recovering and restoring coral reef ecosystems all around the world.

A single, coral polyp

(Photo: www.flowergarden.noaa.gov/education/coralbasics.html) A single, coral polyp

Corals are actually communities of tiny polyp-like animals that don’t have a backbone. They closely resemble sea anemones but are much smaller and don’t pack as much of a sting. After free-floating around the ocean during the baby, or larval, stage, coral polyps will settle down on different surfaces and create a permanent home for themselves with other polyps. The colorful brain, pipe and antler-like structures that you would see while diving in a coral reef are actually the various communities of coral polyps living and feeding together. Therefore, it’s quite easy to understand why it would take a coral reef such a long time to grow into any feasible size.

How slow is too slow? The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has observed that some species of coral grow at a snail’s pace of 0.3-2 cm per year. However, species like branching coral, will grow a little faster at the breakneck speed of 10 cm per year. Therefore, if you were a baby coral larvae and needed to grow up, it would take you up to 10,000 years to become a full reef and maybe around 100,000-30,000,000 years to grow to about the size of the Great Barrier Reef! That’s a looong time to wait to become an adult! Furthermore, coral polyps are small and fragile creatures. Once damaged, it takes quite some time for coral reefs that were once healthy and whole to repair themselves.

Tragic, but true….the projects that we humans have undertaken to grow and develop our own ‘reefs’….pollution, overfishing, housing development…have caused a lot of damage over time to delicate reef ecosystems all around the globe. For the past 50 years, about twenty seven percent of the world’s reefs have been destroyed due to human activity. This is according to the NASA Earth Observatory  which also states that another thirty two percent of reefs are going to be at risk for decimation over the next several decades.

“Unprecedented human population growth is putting increased pressure on our oceans, not only because of climate change and pollution, but also because of destructive fishing practices, increased water runoff and dredging. Our irreplaceable coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse and uniquely fragile ecosystems on the planet, and consequently suffer the quickest and the most drastically from this human expansion.”                                                             

-Alex Goad

one of Alex Goad's MARS units

(Photo: Alex Goad) An installed MARS unit 

And this is where Alex Goad’s MARS project comes in. With studies in industrial design from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, Goad, along with co-founder David Lennon (a marine biologist), is bringing MARS to life at Reef Design Lab. A safe and simple material, MARS structures can be built and implemented in areas where small pockets of coral are trying to reestablish themselves in badly damaged areas. During his research, Goad has looked into the world of ceramics. Texture, wide surface area and non-toxic substrate are just a few of the awesome properties that ceramic possesses that allows corals and other small, marine animals to hide and construct a safe home. According to Goad, the ceramic for MARS is either a food-grade, earthenware ceramic fired up to 1100 degrees celsius or a food-grade stoneware ceramic fired up to 1200 degrees celsius. Ceramic’s porous surface is ideal for encouraging microorganisms to colonize and flourish. It has been used for decades to allow young corals to grow in marine aquariums because its surface is an ideal substitute for carbonate rock that would be found in a coral’s natural habitat. “We tested the growth rates between ceramic and other various materials and found that ceramic always had better results.” says, Goad. Each of the units that Goad constructs are eight slip-cast, ceramic arms. The arms, or shells, are then filled composite rebar and marine-grade concrete for strength and durability.

Installing a MARS unit in a marine habitat

(Photo: Alex Goad) Installing a MARS unit in a marine habitat

Reef Design Labs have already implemented MARS units in various coral reef ecosystems. The modular designs of MARS are easy to transport on small, marine craft and then carried to marine sights by divers. This, in turn, helps to reduce the cost of transportation and installation of the MARS material. After just three months, shrimp, small fish and other marine animals had colonized the installed MARS units. What I think is even more cool is that Reef Design Labs is currently experimenting and designing a marine habitat that can be printed in 3-D! Whoa!

After three months, shrimp and other small marine animals began to inhabit the MARS unit

(Photo: Alex Goad) After three months, shrimp and other small marine animals began to inhabit the MARS unit

*For more information Goad’s research, you can check out his website at http://www.alex-goad.com or read about his research in the November 2015 issue of Ceramics Monthly

Not only can advances in art and science be used for our needs, it should be used to protect and preserve the natural world in order that it does not get left behind in the wake of human development. Let us, for once, take our eyes off the prize set in our sights and look outward. Let us share our knowledge and wisdom with the rest of the world.

Works Cited:

  1. Harnetty, Jennifer. “Ceramic Reefs Help Damaged Coral Reefs Rebound”. Ceramic Arts Daily. Web. 18 November, 2015. Accessed 21 November, 2015.