Ulrike Pfreundt wants to 3D print coral reef structures to save the oceans

Research Pitching Competition 2018 finalist Ulrike Pfreundt from ETH Zürich boldly bridges digital architecture and marine ecosystem restoration to create artificial reef structures that could help save our oceans.


You want to 3D print coral reef to support the coral reef ecosystems. How did you come up with this idea?

During the summer of 2017 I attended a 10-week immersive programme at Singularity University, a sort of think-and-do tank. Our cohort was 90 people from around the world and our task was to identify the largest problems around climate change and find ways to possibly solve them. Oceans have always been my greatest passion, so my team systematically went through the most pressing issues concerning our oceans such as overfishing, pollution and dying coral reefs. We quickly realized that the death of coral reefs is so urgent that we must start doing something right now. After the program I started to develop my idea further. Though I have been in basic research all my life, the urgency of the problem made me realize I must move into applied research. I want to use my skills to do research that solves problems right now.

What made you want to get on the Slush stage and pitch your work?

I have pitched startup ideas before but I have never pitched research. Pitching creates a bond with an audience that is not from my field. That is exciting and a challenge. To pitch your work you have to let go of details, that is tough for me as a scientist. This will be fun to work with.

What is the wildest thing you would like to accomplish as a researcher?

It would be fascinating to create a 3D printing robot that can go underwater where tropical reefs should be and print ecologically meaningful reef structures right from the local sand.

When did you decide to become a researcher?

I have always had a deep connection with nature through my mother who is a biologist. I think I knew I wanted to be a biologist already in 9th grade. I have always been very curious.

My curiosity brought me into genetics because I wanted to understand biology at its deepest level. Later I wanted to take this knowledge to the environment. After my Master’s diploma, my professor suggested I should stay as a PhD student. I said yes, but it had to be about the ocean.

What would you like to see happen in your career in the future?

I want to make the jump from basic research into applied research. I want to establish myself as someone not confined to a narrow research field but someone who can fearlessly combine diverse technology and diverse people. I see myself in a group that tackles big problems through creative thinking.

Ulrike’s wild idea:

By 2050 > 90% of coral reefs, home to a quarter of all marine fish species, may be dead. Their rapid demise directly threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people along tropical coastlines, as well as global fisheries and the health of other marine ecosystems. I can create the knowledge that will allow us to 3D-print ecologically meaningful artificial reef structures. How might we design artificial reefs to catalyze the regrowth of a sustainable, biodiverse reef ecosystem? A crucial factor for this is the recruitment of new coral to the reef. Many corals reproduce by releasing sperm and eggs into the water, where swimming coral larvae develop. When the larvae settle on a suitable hard substrate, they attach and become coral polyps. Most artificial reefs to date lack structural complexity and fail to provide enough protected spaces for larvae and small polyps, thus only achieving limited biodiversity. We know that structure is important, but not which aspects of the surface structure enable larvae to settle successfully and become an integral part of the growing reef. Using 3D printing to create test surfaces, I will study the impact of small-scale surface features such as grooves, holes, overhangs, and edges on coral recruitment in controlled flow tanks and in the field. By communicating my work broadly, I expect to raise awareness for coral reefs and stimulate the creation of an urgently needed knowledge base for ecologically meaningful artificial reef design.