How An Engineer Is Using 3D Printing To Change The World

"3D printing could be the key to solving some of the mess we have created on Earth and that is a beautiful thing,” — Enrico Dini

Enrico Dini is building rainforests in the desert and houses on the moon. This is a man with an imagination so powerful he might just change the way we all live.

“I am like Martin Luther King. I had a dream, and it was a good one,” says Enrico Dini, with a chuckle. “One night in 2004, I couldn’t sleep and I had this vision of what 3D printing could do. It was a dream of beauty. Beauty, you see, is the essence of life. It is not an option, it is everything.”

Dini, as you might have guessed, is Italian. And as he tells me about beauty in his thick accent, I find myself rapturously agreeing with everything he says. Sure, his voice is rather intoxicating, but so is his vision for the future. Dini’s mission to use local, natural materials such as sand, powdered stone and lunar dust (more on that later) in 3D printing has the very real potential to improve not only the human but also the natural world.

Dini began his career as a marine and then civil engineer but 10 years ago he left his stable job to create D-Shape, a printer that builds full-scale sandstone buildings — and a lot more. “When I began, my focus was to make social housing more beautiful,” says Dini. “I wanted to change the relief and the model of these concrete blocks in Europe so that they could be unique and beautiful in their own way. Just because people are poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to live somewhere aesthetically pleasing.”

At first, Dini was concentrating purely on human structures, but a conversation with an Australian marine biologist changed all that. “I was talking to him about the fish tanks I wanted to build, when he suggested I think bigger,” he says. “Forget the fish tanks and make some artificial coral to help rebuild our depleted fish stocks. Now I am an inventor, which means I give even the craziest ideas some consideration. So I put the phone down, thought about it all night, and realised this would be my new mission. I would print houses for fish.”

Dini spent the next few years perfecting a technique for moulding lifelike coral reefs from sand using his vast D-Shape machine. He and his team dredge sand and sludge from the seabed along the coast, dry it in the sun, and fold it through D-Shape to print the natural curves of a reef. Once this has been done, it is placed back in the same seabed where it replaces destroyed or damaged coral. “We’ve already made a lot of coral and we have proven the technique can work,” he says. “Our coral is more like a stone object full of cavities. Like a resort for fish. And what is incredible is that the fish are immediately attracted to the more aesthetically pleasing designs. Everyone likes beauty, you see.”

Dini’s next project is to ‘green’ the desert. Searching for a solution to the growing problem of overpopulation, Dini realised that instead of chopping down rainforests to make space for humans, we should start living in parts of the world with less natural life to destroy, i.e. the desert. “We are currently

making bigger and bigger cities, but I propose we make new kinds of cities,” he says. “We have several million square kilometres of desert that could become useful when we have a population of 13 billion.”

This project has the potential to attract a lot of funding and the governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are unsurprisingly already very interested in his plan, but how exactly will Dini make abundant plant life in a place where currently there is none? “Well I will create trees and leaves, like elsewhere in the natural world,” he says, as if the answer should have been obvious. And Dini’s does concept borrow heavily from mother nature. He will build 30m-tall artificial trees, the height and width of baobabs, a few feet apart from each other. They will have vast interlocking carbon-fibre leaves that will create a kind of canopy that produces energy and reduces water loss through evaporation and thus allows life to flourish on the desert floor for the first time. “It is not a difficult concept,” says Dini. “All it takes is a little imagination.”

Imagination is one thing Dini has in spades. Other 3D printing projects he is working on include houses made out of sand in Mozambique, a Gaudí-inspired bridge in Barcelona and, most impressive of all, buildings on the moon using lunar dust. And the latter is not just a pipe dream, Dini and the architect Norman Foster have already created the 3D printer that could be shipped and used in outer space.

“At first people were sceptical of my ideas, and that is normal,” he says. “But now they are starting to realise that 3D printing could be the key to solving some of the mess we have created on Earth. It is taking us into the future and that is a beautiful thing.”

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