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New marine technologies could transform use of oceans

By Matt Hodson, Marine Hub Operations Director, Cornwall Development Company

Despite the many advances that have been made in marine technology, we have still only harnessed a tiny percentage of the full potential offered by our oceans. But marine innovation is advancing rapidly on a number of fronts.

Here are three examples of new marine technologies that are likely to have a major impact within the next ten years.

1. Deep sea mining

The ocean floor is home to vast deposits of rare minerals and metals, many of them in much higher concentrations than are found on land. There is great international interest in this field and dozens of exploration licenses have already been granted. Nautilus Minerals have designed three giant crawling machines to mine the seabed and they plan to commence trials off the coast of Papua New Guinea within two years. They will be mining in depths of up to 1,600 metres. Meanwhile, China’s largest mining company has been given a license to begin exploring 72,000 square kilometres of ocean bed.

Naturally there are concerns from environmentalists about the impact this new marine technology will have, but experts have pointed to a trade-off here. Mining the sea bed in a controlled way may well cause less harm overall than mining on land. Furthermore, many of the precious metals being sought are vital for our new sustainable technologies. One example is tellurium, which is used in the manufacture of high quality solar panels.

2. Ocean medicines

It is believed that the deep oceans could prove to be rich source of novel drug compounds, new antibiotics and new ingredients for medicines. The WHO estimate that, if no action is taken, the number of drug-resistant related deaths could rise to 10 million per annum. So the need to discover totally new forms of cures has never been greater and the oceans, with their huge biodiversity, could provide the solution.

PharmaSea is an EU-funded project which brings together 23 partners from 13 countries with the key goal of collecting samples from some of the hottest, deepest and coldest places on the planet. They want to “discover new antibiotics, but also new agents for central nervous system diseases, such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease,” says Marcel Jaspars, who is the scientific lead for the project.

In a separate marine development, U.S. scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been analysing the properties of sponges and coral. They discovered a naturally-occurring chemical that breaks down the shield that bacteria use to defend themselves against antibiotics. This chemical can therefore be used to create ‘helper drugs’ which would restore the effectiveness of antibiotics when fighting resistant bacteria.

3. Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC)

The theory behind OTEC was originally developed back in the 1880s, but it has only recently become a reality. OTEC exploits the difference in temperature between cool, deep waters and warmer, shallow waters to power a heat pump which can in turn be used to generate electricity.

A small but operational OTEC plant was established in Hawaii in 2015. Hawaii was chosen due to a combination of three factors: very warm shallow waters; access to very cold, deep waters; and the fact that Hawaii has relatively high ongoing electricity costs. Although small, this was an important milestone as it was the first OTEC plant to be connected to the U.S. grid.

OTEC plants can also be designed to produce fresh water as a by-product. They do this by evaporating sea water and condensing the vapor. This could prove hugely valuable in countries where there is a scarcity of clean drinking water.

Lockheed Martin are committed to OTEC technology and have invested $15 million over the last three years in the development of higher capacity plants. They estimate that there are over 80 countries around the world where the sea conditions would be favourable for OTEC plants.

 A new wave of marine technology

These are just three examples from a very broad range of new marine technologies that are changing the way we view our oceans and the role that they can play in sustaining us over the centuries to come. They are creating important new challenges and new opportunities for all kinds of marine technology businesses – large and small.

As a result, many experts have commented that there is a new industrial revolution stirring in our oceans.