Design Intervention: On a Mission to Rescue Coral Reefs in the Persian Gulf
Environmental startup archiReef’s Vriko Yu talks about how combining design and science brought forward innovative solutions for preserving marine ecosystems.
Environmental startup archiReef's Vriko Yu talks about how combining design and science brought forward innovative solutions for preserving marine ecosystems.
Innovations inspired by a critical situation
It is a race against time to rescue the world’s coral reefs, the rainforests of the sea which support around a third of all known marine species. Largely due to global warming, coral reefs are disappearing, and without sufficient intervention, it is believed that between 70% to 90% of the world’s remaining coral reefs will be extinct by 2050.
This was the grim future that Ph.D. student Vriko Yu witnessed while diving around the Sai Kung district of Hong Kong. Over the course of two months, she watched an area of coral reef completely disappear, leaving her with a sense of urgency that helped jumpstart archiReef, an environmental startup that Yu co-founded with Dr David Baker and Deniz Tekerek.
From the beginning, archiReef has focused on finding innovative solutions to plant corals to help rejuvenate dying coral beds, but it took two years of trial and error before Yu and Baker realised they had to think beyond current solutions.
“We realised we needed to create something new to help create the ideal environment to aid in coral growth and prevent sedimentation build up — one of the major threats to corals — to assist in their restoration. In order to do so, we needed to create a nontoxic structure that corals could adhere to,” says Yu.
Applying nature-inspired design to solve human challenges
Their innovative solution was the first-ever 3D printed terracotta reef tile, the product of combining design with technology. The choice of using terracotta was the result of several studies: unlike concrete, terracotta not only has similarities to the calcium carbonate of real coral reefs, but it also naturally erodes and will eventually disappear, leaving only the new corals.
The ocean-friendly tiles also have a natural surface texture that attracts sessile marine invertebrates like corals, and the porosity of the clay facilitates biocalcification, allowing microorganisms a stable foothold. Each tile is composed of three layers: legs that allow the team to customise the stability of the tile to any location, a base layer that prevents the tiles from sinking into the side, and biomimicry layer inspired by the Platygyra coral and algorithmically designed so that marine biologists can insert different coral species in six designated areas to enhance coral growth.
archiReef’s team also designed the tiles to have inherent modularity through a hexagonal shape which allows one diver to cover up to 40 square metres in a day without the use of any heavy equipment or machinery.
The tiles are fabricated by an industrial robot with a 3D clay extruder arm based on direct ink writing — a method that balances the tile’s algorithmic design, 3D printing, and the drying and firing methods required by terracotta in order to minimise cracking and deformation. This unique process ensures that the tile design is flexible enough to adapt to different environments and even organisms.
Yu explains that the team utilised design as part of its strategy from the beginning: “Design is vital to any product… We looked to nature itself to help us solve human design challenges. By combining design with science, we have been able to create a product that is at least four times better than any other product in the market.”
Sustainable products within a sustainable business model
At the moment, archiReef has two project sites around Hong Kong, including at the Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park, where visitors can view the reefs from a glass-bottomed boat. However, they are expanding their operations and have opened their own eco-engineering facility in Abu Dhabi. Yu says that the UAE “wants to be a leader in the climate narrative and there is a genuine willingness to put in the work and the finances to achieve these goals. From a feasibility perspective, our Hong Kong experience serves as a blueprint of sorts when it comes to working on urban reefs found in both locations.”
Since its inception, archiReef has received a great deal of recognition, including winning the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park’s (HKSTP) Elevator Pitch Competition (EPiC) in 2021 and becoming an UpLink Top Innovator for the Innovation Challenges in 2022. In January 2023, Yu was also invited to the World Economic Forum at Davos as part of a delegation of 13 innovators, where she spoke about the importance of nature-based solutions in marine ecosystem restoration and how they contribute to a nature-positive future with a focus on biodiversity assessment and credits.
As interest in archiReef continues to grow exponentially, the team’s ambitions are also growing in parallel. They now plan to expand from a coral reef company to a marine ecology company with the aim of building dynamic marine ecosystems using some of the engineering methodologies they have established with their existing reef tile product.
Yu notes that while the start-up is working to create feasible products and find partners to help them scale up and find opportunities to put their products in the ocean, the environmental issues they are tackling cannot be solved by one organisation alone. “This is a mission that everyone must be involved in — from corporations, scientists, and even on an individual level. For this reason, we need to create an actionable roadmap that helps create awareness about the challenges we currently face, the challenges that the next generation will inherit from us, and make everyone accountable, because this is something that affects all of us.”