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Sea Technology Magazine Review & Forecast: Advancing Marine Science Tech For a Cleaner, Sustainable Future

13 February 2024

PML's Chief Executive, Prof. Icarus Allen, writes for Sea Technology Magaine about exciting developments and achievements at PML in 2023 and what's in store for 2024.
As featured in the January 2024 edition of Sea Technology Magazine.

The ocean plays a critical role in health, wealth and prosperity around the globe and it has been a particularly hot topic in recent news. Between marine heat-waves, ocean litter, tragic incidents and landmark international partnerships aimed at protecting this incredible environment, to name just a few, the ocean has rarelybeen out of the headlines.

2023 has also been a big year at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), and here we reflect on some of the achievements in 2023, as well as highlight some exciting activities ahead in 2024.
Plankton Analysis
This year saw the delivery of a remarkable new plankton analysis technology, the Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB), to automatically image and classify plankton that range in size from 0.01 to 0.15 mm. PML scientists were part of the team that developed the new equipment, which benefits from artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, offers a radically more sustainable sampling solution compared to traditional direct sampling, and enables the collection of a vastly increased range and frequency of data.

This will allow our experts to observe what plankton species are present in the local waters in much finer detail, which is crucial in gaining a better understanding of how the system functions and how environmental changes may impact those functions and the organisms living within. The ultimate aim is for multiple systems to be deployed around the globe to create a worldwide network of plankton observatories.
Marine Plastics
It was an impressive year for PML’s world-class marine plastics research. PML’s Head of Science for Marine Ecology and Biodiversity Prof. Pennie Lindeque was part of an internationally recognized trio awarded the Volvo Environment Prize and the Blue Planet Prize for pioneering research into the extent and impact of marine plastic litter. Back at the lab, research continued by using satellites and machine learning to help detect and monitor marine plastics, including research using water quality proxies to help determine microplastic concentrations in certain water systems.

Another area of microplastic research highlighted the need for motorists to maintain the correct tire pressure to reduce the amount of microplastics from tire wear entering our waterways. Tire wear stands out as a major source of microplastic pollution: Per year, an average of 1kg of microplastic pollution from tire wear is produced per person on the planet.

Carbon Initiatives
Also in 2023, an innovative €1.5 million project, funded through Amazon’s Right Now Climate Fund, was launched to explore the carbon capture capabilities of seaweed living in the available space between offshore wind turbines. Seaweed habitats have long been heralded as having high carbon dioxide removal potential; however, the extent of their viability for carbon removal at industrial scales is yet to be determined. Marine space is also at a premium, so it is important to find large-scale, accessible spaces for seaweed farms to enhance their feasibility as carbon removal businesses. This first-of- its-kind research project of co-locating a seaweed and offshore wind farm will enable researchers to determine whether this type of co-location could be practical. It will also provide the opportunity to gain a far greater understanding of the natural processes involved in the seaweed carbon cycle and the ability to track detritus and locate where carbon may be stored in the long term.

Always investigating ways in which to reduce the lab’s own carbon footprint, PML has been investing heavily into low-carbon technologies in recent years. This year, a state-of-the-art solar photovoltaic carport was built and has already been helping offset the energy required to run experimental equipment and high-performance computing facilities. It is estimated that the carport will save approximately 65 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, adding to the 14 tonnes of saved carbon dioxide from the roof solar panels, installed in May 2021.

Looking ahead, PML has ambitious low-carbon goals for its sampling operations. Having been highly successful in attracting funding for an autonomous fleet of marine sampling technologies, including data buoys, an uncrewed surface vessel and underwater robots as part of Smart Sound Plymouth, the team is now investigating the development of the world’s first long-range autonomous research vessel. The proposed 24m Oceanus has been designed, with funding support from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), as a self-righting, lightweight, monohulled autonomous vessel capable of carrying an array of monitoring sensors to collect data for research into critical areas, such as climate change, biodiversity, fisheries and biogeochemistry. Designed by Plymouth-based MSUBS Ltd., it will make the transatlantic sampling voyage from the U.K. to the Falklands, which is currently performed in the annual six-week Atlantic Meridional Transect (AMT) research expedition. The Oceanus will carry an advanced scientific payload and use the latest AI navigation technology. An autonomous AMT could lead to multiple data collection missions a year to enable a much better understanding of the dynamics of the ocean environment while allowing a significant reduction in the carbon footprint of data collection.
Supporting Society and Industry
Extending beyond the lab’s autonomous activities, PML is a founding member of the National Centre for Coastal Autonomy, the UK’s first fully integrated autonomous coastal observing and monitoring network. The lab also hosts the Centre for Coastal Technologies through its commercial arm, PML Applications Ltd., which offers access to a team of highly experienced marine operations experts for the safe and secure testing of new sea-going technologies within its existing high-specification marine infrastructure.

Another rapidly advancing research area at the lab is digital twins. PML is a world leader in marine ecosystem and biogeochemical model development, and its models and outputs are used around the globe by a wide range of environmental scientists. However, these models are complex, computationally expensive and require advanced training to generate the output and interpret the information. With this in mind, PML’s expert team has turned its attention to developing environmental digital twins to make ecosystem modeling capabilities more accessible for specific purposes outside of academia, such as aquaculture, blue carbon initiatives and coastal development. Significant progress has already been made in this area, with the latest study demonstrating the successful prediction of low oxygen levels for aquaculture sites and the accurate estimation of oxygen levels from marine observations. The vision is that digital twins of the ocean would eventually democratize access to modeling, enabling end-users without access to high-performance computing facilities to investigate a range of real-world scenarios for management and policy-making decisions.

Overall, it is an inspiring and fascinating time to be working within the marine sector, and the whole of PML looks forward to more exciting ocean opportunities. 
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