Oceans are key to building a more sustainable future
When we think about oceans and environmental issues, the first thing that comes to mind is plastic, and the 8 million tons of it that end up into the sea every year. But the ocean is not just an environmental challenge; it is also an incredible opportunity as it contains the very resources that can help us build a more sustainable future.
Marine energy: the new wave
Along the coastlines, where the combined influences of the moon, sun and gravitation generate tides and waves, lies an infinite source of power. Using barrages, fences and turbines, tidal plants can turn the energy from the natural movement of the waves into electricity.
According to learning resources made available online by MIT, “wave and tidal energy could supply at least 10 percent of the world’s energy consumption”. In 2015, The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that “more than one third of all electricity used in the United States could be drawn from the seas.” The one big constraint of tidal plants is that they have to be installed along coastlines; apart from that, they are flexible enough to be “tailored to specific sites and costs. They can serve remote shoreline communities that otherwise depend on expensive diesel or overland transmission lines,” writes Sophia V. Schweitzer on YaleEnvironment360. In Alaska, for instance, on the Kvichak watershed, a small-scale tidal has been deployed.
There are, however, obstacles to the large-scale use of tidal power, among which are possible negative impacts on the local fauna. As Sophia V. Schweitzer explains, we don’t really know how “marine animals interact with tidal turbines, which feature rotating blades that could kill them”, or how “the sound of devices interfere with the ability of marine mammals to navigate, migrate, and communicate.” The tidal turbine at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland actually shuts off when a mammal approaches, which could be a solution, but environmental scientists are still studying how turbines impact different aspects of marine life.
The algae boom
A couple of years ago, algae started to make headlines as a credible resource for the development of biofuels, as an alternative to fossil energy. To date, it has not yet been possible to develop a mass-market solution, mainly because turning algae into fuel is quite costly. But there are institutions that continue to look for solutions, such as the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, whose Algida project aims to evaluate the pertinence of cultivating algae to turn them into biofuels, even in countries with a cold climate. In the meantime, there are other applications where algae could prove very useful, such as bioplastics. “Regular plastic is a product of fossil fuels and takes an extremely long time to break down, which makes it very environmentally unfriendly. Bioplastic from algae can be produced with low carbon emissions, or even in a way that absorbs emissions,” writes Christian Ridley, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, in The Conversation. The production of plant-based plastics, or bioplastics, indeed requires less fossil fuel and generates less greenhouse gases than oil-derived plastics. Some of them are even designed to biodegrade, which could also help solve the problem of plastic ocean pollution. And algae, because they are easy to cultivate and do not take up land that could be used to produce food for human consumption, could represent a kind of ideal solution. In 2016, a Korean team of researchers used the enzymes of seaweed to make algae-based bioplastic. This material has potential far beyond bottles and plastic bags: “The research team expects that the new technology can be used to manufacture high-performance engineering plastics that are used in electronic equipment, parts of clocks and watches, structural materials for aircrafts,” details Business Korea. A new industrial standard might be in the works.
It is said that, while we have mapped 100% of the surface of the moon and Mars, we still know only a tiny fraction of our oceans. The immensity of its resources certainly holds promises to build sustainable alternatives in the fight against climate change and pollution. But we do have to make sure that we explore them with caution and learn to understand the ocean’s fragile ecosystems, so that finding solutions for the problems we’ve created on Earth does not disturb life in the sea.
By — Usbek & Rica -
Picture from Pexels.com