Innovation That Matters

Next-generation trends 2022: Ocean sustainability

Next Generation Trends

From seawilding to marine mimicry, here are the key areas of focus for businesses looking to stay ahead

The third part of our end-of-year series focuses on the trends and innovations in ocean sustainability.

Just a handful of companies reap most of the financial benefits from the ocean economy. The 10 largest companies in eight core ocean economy industries generate, on average, 45 per cent of each industry’s total revenues. And across all eight industries, the 100 largest corporations (the ‘Ocean 100’) account for 60 per cent of total revenues.

The ocean economy mirrors the structure of the global economy as a whole. And this level of concentration presents threats to the environment. “Powerful companies can more easily lobby governments to weaken social or environmental rules that might otherwise make them limit greenhouse gas emissions or pay higher wages,” says John Virdin, Director, Ocean Policy Program at Duke University. “A top-heavy ocean economy can also stifle innovation or threaten access for small-scale fishers to areas they’ve used for generations.”

Today, the ‘blue economy’ is an emerging concept that encourages better stewardship of our ocean or ‘blue’ resources, with an eye to keeping global heating within 1.5°C. The ocean is critical in averting climate change disaster. That’s because it’s estimated to absorb at least a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

And action is starting to take place at the highest level. More than 100 countries have signed up to a pledge to protect at least 30 per cent of the global oceans by 2030. Marine Protected Areas are increasing in number: Panama, Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica have committed to aligning their marine-protected areas to form a fishing-free corridor covering more than 500,000 square kilometres (200,000 square miles). Innovation has a crucial role to play in developing solutions that will help both businesses and the planet.

Trend #1: Seawilding

Seawilding applies the concept of ‘rewilding’ (conservation efforts aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes and wilderness areas) to our oceans. Rewilding the seabed, for example, poses a great opportunity for carbon sequestration: seagrass sequesters carbon 35 times faster than trees, while also reducing the effects of storm surges.

But how does one go about seawilding? Creating more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) could be part of the answer. These are areas of the ocean set aside for long-term conservation aims. However, just 6.35 per cent of the ocean is currently protected, and most existing MPAs do not have enough human and financial resources to properly implement conservation and management measures.

While increased political commitments can help boost the governance structures and resources available to MPAs, innovation will also be required to rebalance and restore the seas.

The innovations:

In the UK, scientists are looking into the ability of mussels to filter microplastics from natural waterways.  Mussels are crucial to the maintenance of a balanced and healthy marine ecosystem, as they help to remove bacteria and excess algae from the water. According to a study, a square metre of mussels can filter up to 150,000 litres of water.

Taking inspiration from microbiome approaches used in healthcare, German scientists have created a heat-resistant coral – an intervention that could help re-establish reef regrowth and biodiversity. With some of the most important reef-building species of corals under extreme duress as climate change pushes temperatures higher, the work by scientists from Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Kiel, is being tested in Thailand’s Andaman Sea.

In Hong Kong, 3D-printed ‘reef tiles’ are helping with coral restoration. The tiles, which are printed from terracotta clay, prevent sedimentation and provide a structurally complex foundation for coral attachment. Reef tiles can either be seeded with coral fragments, or left for coral polyps to naturally colonise as they are carried past on ocean currents.

Trend #2: Underwater waste management

The deep blue is becoming increasingly murky. About 82 million tonnes of macroplastics, and 40 million tonnes of microplastics, are found along the world’s shorelines. Some estimates say there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Moreover, microplastics are beginning to kill off fish before they reach the age of reproduction, which can cause populations to rapidly dwindle.

In addition, as plastics break down, chemical additives leach into the ecosystem, harming many marine animals and the underwater vegetation that supports them. The challenge for innovators is clear: ridding the seas of plastic and other rubbish is a top priority.

The innovations:

A Norwegian app can track where shoreline plastic rubbish comes from. It’s intended to be utilised primarily by clean-up crews, although it could also be used by members of the public. The app takes into consideration factors such as prevailing currents, tides and weather patterns, so it will be able to determine the approximate oceanic route of the item that led it to end up where it did. If there are sources along that route that could be suspected of such waste, they can be paid a visit by municipal authorities.

A new fleet of giant floating barriers is tackling the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ – a collection of man-made marine debris trapped in circular currents in the North Pacific Ocean. Ocean Cleanup has deployed ‘Jenny’ – an 800m-long barrier – drawn through the water between two manned vessels (provided by shipping company Maersk), which it hopes will collect 50 per cent of the Garbage Patch every five years. During a test in 2021, the team estimates that 28,659 kilogrammes of plastic waste was removed from the ocean.

In Mexico, a beer company hosted a tournament to fish out plastic from the ocean, removing 2.9 tonnes in just four hours. The tournament challenged local fishermen to retrieve plastic from the channel between Isla de la Piedra and the Urías estuary, an area heavily impacted by tourism, in exchange for cash prizes. Add this to other events that have been run in the area, and more than 5 million kilogrammes of plastic has been collected since December 2020. 

Trend #3: Energy afloat

Energy is the dominant contributor to climate change, accounting for around 60 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions – hence an urgent need to explore options for renewable and clean sources, including wind and solar power.

The issue with these sources is the amount of space they require – especially for smaller, developing and landlocked countries. In recognition of this, one of the UN Goal 7 targets is to expand infrastructure and upgrade technology for supplying modern and sustainable energy services to these countries.

Innovation is what’s needed to bridge the gap. And ocean-based locations for generating renewable energy could be one answer.

The innovations:

Singapore is investing in large-scale projects, including floating solar farms, as part of its goal to use solar power for 10 to 20 per cent of its electricity. Large expanses of water, such as reservoirs, are ideal for the government’s latest sustainability push. In the Strait of Johor, the Sunseap Group is building a photovoltaic system with the capacity to create five megawatts of electricity, which is enough to supply 1,250 flats for a year.

Denmark is building the world’s first ‘energy island’, an artificial landmass designed to hold wind turbines that will produce enough energy to power three million European households. The final result, due to be ready in 2033, will be a 30-acre artificial island in the North Sea that will accommodate a huge expansion in wind production.

Also in Denmark, seaborne nuclear plants provide an affordable alternative to electricity. Built by Danish company Seaborg Technologies, the Compact Molten Salt Reactor (CMSR) is a safer, more sustainable source of nuclear energy. Designed explicitly to support economic, social and environmental sustainability, the CMSRs provide low-emission energy at a price, and in a quantity, that supports the needs of rapidly developing countries.

Trend #4 Marine mimicry

Nature is the mother of invention. Millions of years of evolution and adaptive design mean the living world is full of tried-and-tested solutions for surviving and thriving in a range of environments and against a variety of threats.

Biomimicry is the practice of simulating or emulating nature in science and design. And it’s what the smartest innovative minds are harnessing to tackle a range of problems today and tomorrow.

The innovations:

In the USA, a lobster-inspired hydrogel is nearly as strong as Kevlar, and could be used in medicine and by the military. A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have mimicked the strength and flexibility of a lobster’s underbelly. The hydrogel may be suitable for replacing damaged tendons and ligaments, providing patients with incredibly strong yet flexible and lightweight surgical options.

A French startup has developed a bio-inspired, electric propulsion system that echoes the movement of fish fins, and has the potential to inspire a new generation of propeller-less boats. The FinX thruster is attached to the winding of an electric motor, which is set in motion by the currents, thus creating a wave-like, fin-like effect. No propeller means that marine life will not risk becoming entangled or killed in the radiating blades. The FinX can also move through polluted waters with ease, allowing algae, plastics and fishing lines to pass through it.

A water purification gel inspired by the pufferfish uses sunlight to passively and sustainably clean contaminated water. Developed by researchers at Princeton University, the device resembles a large sponge made from gel, which soaks up water but leaves behind contaminants. The purified water is then collected by placing the sponge on top of a container, before leaving it in the sunlight. As the sun warms the gel, pure water trickles into the container. This concept was inspired by the pufferfish, which takes in water to swell its body when threatened, and then releases it when danger passes.

Trend #5: Vitamin seaweed

There’s been an explosion of interest in seaweed recently. The global seaweed market was valued at $11.1 billion in 2016 and is expected to grow at a rate of 8.9% from 2018 to 2024.

And no wonder – seaweed grows quickly, requires no additional resources, is very good at sequestering carbon and has a wide number of uses, from food to energy production.  And innovators have been inspired – creating everything from new foodstuffs, to compostable packaging, to technology that makes it easier to harvest at scale.

The innovations:

London-based startup Notpla has created a range of biodegradable packaging from seaweed. In a partnership with online delivery food service Just Eat, it developed seaweed-lined takeaway containers, which are home compostable and provide grease proofing without adding plastic. This means they can be recycled, unlike many plastic-lined takeaway containers. 

US-based New Wave Foods has created an environmentally-friendly version of shrimp using plants and sustainably sourced seaweed. It could become a sustainable alternative to the 1.4 billion pounds of shrimp that are consumed by Americans every year. The company uses natural plant extracts to create shrimp’s briny and sweet flavours. The company says the product also has the ‘texture and bite of shrimp’, and that it can be prepared in recipes that call for shellfish.

In India, an automated ‘sea combine’ could enable the harvesting of seaweed at scale. The traditional method for growing seaweed is to attach pieces of seaweed to rope lines or nets by hand, wait for it to grow, and then manually harvest and ‘re-seed’ the lines. In contrast, Sea6’s sea combine, which resembles a large catamaran without sails, travels back and forth through the lines, harvesting and replanting the seaweed automatically. 

Words: Hannah Hudson

Read the other parts in our series here:

Next-generation trends 2022: Regeneration and biodiversity
Next-generation trends 2022: Post-COVID-19 acceleration
Next-generation trends 2022: Cities and the built environment
Next-generation trends 2022: Eco-consumption

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