It’s suggested that we know more about the surface of the Moon and about Mars, than we do about the deep ocean.

The technological innovation that got humans to the moon went on to greatly improve our world. This is the kind of research, and vision, that’s leading the team at Blue Ocean CRC in their work to convene key players driving ocean-based research and innovation. 

The ‘Cooperative Research Centre’ brings together universities, researchers and industry operators to both identify problems within the ocean economy, and find solutions. They offer research grants, they map industry priorities and they convene global players. 

Funding comes from the Australian government, which has tipped-in $70 million over ten years, and industry participants have then multiplied that with contributions of more than $240 million of cash and in-kind resources on the table over that 10 year period. 

The organisation is well-funded, and highly focussed, in their mission to drive the growth of the blue economy, with a focus on offshore aquaculture and offshore renewable energy.

OnImpact spoke with CEO of Blue Ocean CRC, John Whittington, about the structure of the organisation, how they direct industry priorities, and key technologies being explored.

Identifying Problems, and Researching Solutions

The model for Blue Economy CRC, and for most cooperative research centres, is to identify problems facing their stakeholders, and to then introduce researchers who can help solve them. 

Groups come together to deal with a particular challenge, they pool resources, and can apply to the government for grants. 

“We’ve got research programmes that span both the engineering and biology sides of offshore aquaculture and offshore renewables; while also looking at the regulatory side of developing those activities in the oceans.” Says John Whittington.

“We’re also doing quite a lot of work now in ocean accounting, or environmental management, accounting in oceans. One of the things that Marni’s report identified is this lack of consistency and knowledge in the space. And that’s certainly an area we’re leading, out of Griffith University.”

Ocean-Based carbon markets is an example of a key area of research for the team. They commissioned a report that was led by Marni Oaten, Managing Director, OCT Emissions Solutions. 

The report: Ocean-based Carbon Markets Australia and New Zealand, explores the potential scope and scale of ocean carbon markets, and the opportunities for industry players.

The organisation currently has 43 partners. They include universities: Uni of Tasmania, Uni of Queensland, Griffith University, Uni of Western Australia and Macquarie University.

Also universities overseas; Ghent University in Belgium, The University of Auckland, Aukland University of Technology, National University of Singapore. As well as Universities in Chile and Ireland as well. 

Companies are also participants: Tasmanian salmon products Huon, Petuna and Tassal, as well as New Zealand King Salmon. Also feed suppliers like Skretting.

And then they have a number of energy related developers and suppliers. So Sabella, which is a wave ocean based out of France. Saitec, which looks at floating offshore wind out of Spain. 

“So it’s a real mix of those that have problems they want solved.” John says. 

“Tassal is a good example of that. They might have a particular technological issue that they want solved, perhaps with some of their cage infrastructure, or they might be wanting to move also into using kelps, for example, to not only capture carbon, but capture nutrients out of their facilities. And so then they come us, to develop a research programme.”

The Promise of Seaweed

Seaweed was always an area of interest for the team, but they needed to find the specific focus area where they could best apply their unique skillset. 

They apply their research lens, and spoke to key players. They found their niche in the at-scale offshore cultivation of big brown macro-algae. They brought on several new participants, and now have a significant research programme. 

“We had people interested in growing kelp, but we asked ourselves, what do you do with it once you’ve grown it?” John says. 

They found industry interest in the nutraceutical, pharmaceutical, and food production fields, as well as making biochar for soil conditioning. 

Some participants were even interested in the use of seaweeds for capturing carbon and then burying it deep in the ocean. So they set to exploring the science behind it, the tools they’d need, and the intricacies of measuring the longevity of that form of carbon sequestration. 

“So we’ve got end users for seaweeds, who want to use it for those sorts of traditional things. But now we’ve also got groups like Climate foundation and Southern Ocean Carbon Company interested in understanding the carbon abatement potential of sequestering carbon in the deep ocean.” John says. 

To plan priorities the team developed a ‘roadmap’ of research projects, and a key issue that came out of that was a lack of industry understanding around a specific type of seaweed: Devilia, which is a really big bull kelp. 

For most seaweeds, there’s clear understanding of the lifecycle, which enables a production cycle, and a business model, to be built around it. But for Devilia, the knowledge wasn’t there, so that has become a key research topic, while work continues, prospects are looking good. 

The Economics of Offshore Wind in Australia

Australia is renowned for its abundant renewable energy resources. Solar and wind generation on land is widespread and growing, but so far, offshore wind has not found a footing. 

There’s plenty of reasons for this: first, Australia is not land constrained, unlike the UK and Western Europe, it’s been far cheaper and easier to build infrastructure on land. But that may be changing. 

As sites become congested, and it becomes more difficult to commission sites on land, offshore opportunities are starting to become economic.

Similarly, legacy regulation has made it near impossible to explore offshore wind. State waters go out three nautical miles, but beyond that it’s international waters, and until recently it’s not been allowed. 

“The laws changed last year, with the Australian Government bringing in a bill regarding offshore electrical energy infrastructure. We finally have a regulatory environment that opens the door for those opportunities to simply expand.” John says. 

Also, Australia’s coast tends to get deep very quickly. At depths of 100m or more, it’s not possible to install  fixed wind turbines, the kind you might find in the North Sea. 

This is where innovation comes in, and the team is working with Saitec, a Spanish company building floating offshore wind turbines. 

And finally, it needs to be lined-up with existing networks on land.

“The key is being able to plug it into something relatively easily, otherwise you have massive costs of all this extra transmission infrastructure. We found that Australia had an extraordinarily good wind resource. Just look at an area like the Bass Strait, it’s a world class wind resource.” John says. 

Innovation Opportunities – Carnegie Wave Energy

Just like any good parent, John was hesitant to highlight one particular ‘child’ that was a favorite, but in terms of innovative research, he is excited about the prospects of Carnegie Wave Energy. 

They’re thinking laterally, and learning from the frustrations of past experiments to bring their wave-powered turbines to more niche use-cases. 

“Historically, wave energy converter devices are a standalone piece of kit. But to take that further, they’re using some of that technology on existing infrastructure at sea. For example, aquaculture sites use these large feeder barges that sit out in the ocean, we’re working with Carnegie’s technology to reimagine the way they’re moored. We’re using a taut mooring that can harness the movement of the ocean to turn the structures into a power generator. So you’re actually using existing moored infrastructure in the ocean to generate its own power. And then they would be able to replace diesel on these sorts of pieces of equipment. So that’s a really exciting one for us.” John says.

“This would not have happened without the work of Blue Economy CRC. We bring people with problems and solutions together, in ways that would not normally have happened.

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