Friday, March 1, 2024

Workplace Wellbeing: Surfing the wave of sustainable energy

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The world will celebrate St Patrick’s Day by turning its monuments green today. But in Ireland, there are companies that aren’t just green for one day. These companies harness elements of the natural world to sustainably create products that benefit us all. In doing so, they show the world that it’s possible to be green every day.

OceanEnergy is one of these companies. Set up in 2014 to develop equipment that could transform the power of waves into electricity, it has since developed the world’s largest capacity wave energy device, which it hopes to see in use in Ireland and all over the world by the end of the decade.

Prof Tony Lewis is OceanEnergy’s chief technology officer and co-founder. He also used to lecture in hydraulics, coastal and ocean engineering at University College Cork. “My co-founder John McCarthy and I were aware that Ireland had this huge energy resource in the Atlantic waves that hit our west coast,” he says. “Every day, waves deliver €15m worth of energy to our shores. That’s €5.5bn a year. Imagine how that could reduce our energy bills and improve our energy security.”

In 2014, he and McCarthy set up OceanEnergy to develop technology and equipment capable of exploiting the energy contained in our waves. They started small, testing a model in a tank with simulated waves at UCC’s Beaufort Environmental Research Institute in Ringaskiddy. When that was successful, they graduated to a 30-tonne device that they trialled in Galway Bay for three years.

Their next step took them into international waters. A large-scale device will soon be installed at a US navy test site in Hawaii and next year, a European Union-backed project will see OceanEnergy install the largest capacity wave energy device in the world off the coast of Scotland.

Pending the results of those tests, Lewis hopes to see these devices going into mass production by the end of this decade. “Given how far along we are with testing and demonstrations, we’re confident that by 2026, when testing in Scotland concludes, our machine will be ready for use and OceanEnergy will be in a position to contribute to Ireland’s renewable energy targets by 2030,” he says.

Creating a sustainable energy source is what motivates him in his work. “If we succeed in harnessing wave energy, we won’t have to rely on the likes of Russia for our energy needs,” he says. “We may even produce enough energy to export to the rest of Europe. Wave energy could help Ireland and the world and it’s exciting to think that we’re at the forefront of that.”

Professor Tony Lewis

Seaweed for skincare

Dr Helena McMahon is an expert in gene and cellular therapeutics and a co-founder of Seabody, a seaweed-based skincare and health supplement range that’s produced in Kerry and Sligo.

It was science that drew her to seaweed. “Seaweed contains what I call superhero molecules that have amazing health benefits,” she says. “They may play a role in explaining why people who live in the so-called ‘blue zones’ around the world have longer healthier lives. Could it be because they have been eating seaweed for years?”

In 2018, she and a team of technologists and scientists set themselves the challenge of extracting these molecules, examining their properties and using them to create seaweed-powered skincare and health supplement products. “Our biotechnology company developed a new approach to break down seaweed into its constituent parts, to concentrate those and then use them in Seabody formulations,” she says.

Their approach may have been led by science, but it prioritised sustainability too. “Our processes elevate a natural resource into a hero ingredient for beauty and wellness and it does this in a clean and environmentally friendly way that has circularity at its core,” says McMahon.

Seabody farms seaweed in the Atlantic Ocean and collaborates with harvesters to collect seaweed in a way that doesn’t deplete the resource. The seaweed is then broken into its component parts in the biotechnology suite.

“We discovered which components were good for enhancing collagen or elastin in healthy skin and which boosted digestive or muscle health. Nature led the way,” says McMahon.

The Seabody team followed by combining these seaweed extracts with all-natural plant-based skincare ingredients. “We use clean ingredients that contain no petroleum derivatives or animal products,” says McMahon. “Our supply chain is organic, fair trade and sustainable. The way we process the seaweed is chemical free and zero waste too.”

Caring for the environment has been central from the outset. “Nature itself is the most advanced technology on the planet,” says McMahon. “It’s the most sustainable in that it recycles itself with zero waste. When we decided to look to nature for ingredients with health benefits, we wanted to do it in a sustainable way, to not just take from the natural world but to be sensitive to the environment. That approach has made our progress a little slower and more expensive but it’s our guiding principle in all that we do.”

McMahon is proud of Seabody’s success to date. “We’re so connected to our environment and landscape here in Ireland and we want to preserve the beautiful country we live in,” she says. “It makes me happy that Seabody is playing a part in that, all while creating sustainable products that people can use every day as part of their skincare and wellness routines.”

Dr Helena McMahon co-founder of Seabody. 
Dr Helena McMahon co-founder of Seabody. 

Fertiliser from the sea

Brandon Bioscience is another company inspired by the blue waters that surround our island. In the case of this marine biotech company, based in Tralee, Co Kerry, it produces plant biostimulants that boost the growth of crops.

“Our primary raw ingredient is a knotted wrack seaweed that is exclusively available along the North Atlantic coastlines of Ireland and the UK,” says Deirdre Wall, marketing manager of Brandon Bioscience.

“It’s an inter-tidal seaweed which means it’s exposed to sunshine when the tide is out. We’ve developed a process that extracts a biostimulant from this seaweed that can address problems experienced by farmers whose crops come under pressure from heat or drought or farmers who want to maintain their productivity and output while reducing their dependency on fertiliser.”

The Terra range is one of their most successful. Produced in partnership with Target Fertilisers, it consists of a granular nitrogen fertiliser coated in this biostimulant. “It allows farmers to use 25% less nitrogen fertiliser to get the same output from their grass,” says Wall.

Since it was founded in 1998, Brandon Bioscience has grown to employ 40 people and export to 40 countries worldwide. “We work with farming communities all over the world, all experiencing different problems with their crops and their climate,” says Wall. “Our goal is to make sustainable use of readily available seaweed and to use it to help grow food to feed the world’s people.”

Wall gets a great deal of satisfaction from her work. “At Brandon Bioscience, we believe that innovative technologies like ours will allow us to feed the world in a sustainable way,” she says. “We are working with international partners to meet environmental goals. We know that climate doesn’t respect borders and that we’ll have to work together if we’re to solve our global problems.”

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