COASTAL CHALLENGESArtificial Reef Could Protect Marine life, Reduce Storm Damage

By Jennifer Chu

Published 28 March 2024

MIT engineers designed a sustainable and cost-saving structure which aims to dissipate more than 95 percent of incoming wave energy using a small fraction of the material normally needed.

The beautiful, gnarled, nooked-and-crannied reefs that surround tropical islands serve as a marine refuge and natural buffer against stormy seas. But as the effects of climate change bleach and break down coral reefs around the world, and extreme weather events become more common, coastal communities are left increasingly vulnerable to frequent flooding and erosion.

An MIT team is now hoping to fortify coastlines with “architected” reefs — sustainable, offshore structures engineered to mimic the wave-buffering effects of natural reefs while also providing pockets for fish and other marine life.

The team’s reef design centers on a cylindrical structure surrounded by four rudder-like slats. The engineers found that when this structure stands up against a wave, it efficiently breaks the wave into turbulent jets that ultimately dissipate most of the wave’s total energy. The team has calculated that the new design could reduce as much wave energy as existing artificial reefs, using 10 times less material.

The researchers plan to fabricate each cylindrical structure from sustainable cement, which they would mold in a pattern of “voxels” that could be automatically assembled, and would provide pockets for fish to explore and other marine life to settle in. The cylinders could be connected to form a long, semipermeable wall, which the engineers could erect along a coastline, about half a mile from shore. Based on the team’s initial experiments with lab-scale prototypes, the architected reef could reduce the energy of incoming waves by more than 95 percent.

“This would be like a long wave-breaker,” says Michael Triantafyllou, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “If waves are 6 meters high coming toward this reef structure, they would be ultimately less than a meter high on the other side. So, this kills the impact of the waves, which could prevent erosion and flooding.”

Details of the architected reef design are reported today in a study appearing in the open-access journal PNAS Nexus. Triantafyllou’s MIT co-authors are Edvard Ronglan SM ’23; graduate students Alfonso Parra Rubio, Jose del Auila Ferrandis, and Erik Strand; research scientists Patricia Maria Stathatou and Carolina Bastidas; and Professor Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms; along with Alexis Oliveira Da Silva at the Polytechnic Institute of Paris, Dixia Fan of Westlake University, and Jeffrey Gair Jr. of Scinetics, Inc.