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Leading the blue economy into a sustainable future

Written by François Baneyx / December 15, 2022
Liquid hydrogen renewable energy vessel

For centuries, humankind has made a living from the oceans and seas that cover 72% of our planet and house 95% of living organisms. We have relied on these waters for food, trade, travel, recreation, and, more ominously, for war and conquest. We have also taken for granted their role in food production, carbon sequestration, temperature regulation, and oxygen generation, instead polluting and overexploiting them. Now, we are facing the real sea change, and the challenge of mitigating the harm that we have brought on the waters of the world.

The concept of the blue economy originated 10 years ago in the “Rio +20” United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). The movement seeks to protect oceans and coasts, and the people who depend on a healthy marine ecosystem for prosperity, with sustainability and stewardship at the forefront of its efforts. Necessity is the mother of innovation, and if necessity is not enough, the opportunity to capitalize on an estimated $2.5 trillion market should motivate our best and brightest to focus their attention on these issues. Together we can turn the tide on practices that have undermined ocean health and placed coastal communities on the brink of disaster.

Recent trends in this area include a renewed interest in harnessing the power of the ocean for energy generation using wave, tidal, and thermal energy converters; environmentally responsible aquaculture that meets population growth needs; improved waste management and cleanup technologies that aid in ocean recovery; and conservation measures to protect sea-life habitats while supporting tourism through sustainable travel and investment.

We have a lot of the right ingredients in the Puget Sound region to be leaders in the blue economy. The maritime industry in Washington state supports 148,000 jobs and contributes $30 billion to our economy. Our high-powered startup culture continues to attract top talent and capital, and the University of Washington provides a pipeline of mission-relevant expertise. Our Department of Atmospheric Sciences and School of Oceanography rank #1 and #2 in the world, respectively, and our Applied Physics Laboratory has been a leader in oceanographic studies since 1943. Opportunities to study and innovate in the blue economy abound, from the fabled Friday Harbor Labs to the Ocean Observatory Initiative Cabled Array.

UW spinoffs are already making a difference in the sector. Banyu Carbon is developing a photocatalytic technology to sequester carbon dioxide from ocean water. Blucline is harnessing data science and cloud-based algorithms to rapidly process sonar data. And Puget Buoy is developing a ropeless, pop-up buoy that virtually eliminates the risk of entanglement for fish and other marine life.

What we are still missing is a sense of urgency and a nexus of public-private partnerships underpinned by trust. I recently participated in a gubernatorial trip to the Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden, and Norway where the commitment to carbon neutrality and ocean sustainability runs deep and wide. It was eye-opening to see how advanced our Nordic colleagues are in deploying new technologies to decarbonize the maritime sector, and how far they have already come.

It is an exciting time to innovate in the blue economy space. We can do this by working together and learning from one another.

Be well,

François Baneyx
UW Vice Provost for Innovation and Director of CoMotion