Ocean innovation: the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea

Ocean innovation: the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea

The French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER, Institut français de recherche pour l'exploitation de la mer) is one of the world's leading oceanographic institutions. It has around 1600 staff and a remit to carry out targeted applied research on issues such as the impact of climate change on the oceans, marine biodiversity, pollution prevention and seafood quality. IFREMER is involved in numerous projects, including the application of eco-innovation to the oceans. A particular current concern is the issue of micro-plastics in the sea.

Chantal Compère, head of the IFREMER research and technological development unit, discussed some of the challenges facing the oceans that eco-innovation could help to tackle, and highlighted some current key research projects.

What are some of the priorities for eco-innovative research when it comes to the oceans?

Chantal Compère: This is not a completely new issue. We started to work on nautical eco-innovation in 2009, with the first projects initiated in that year on the eco-design of boats. But recently, the problem of micro-plastics has become a much more significant preoccupation, with work carried out in particular on the impact of micro-plastics on oysters.

Since the beginning of 2016, micro-plastics have become one of the priority subjects for IFREMER at the national level. Each year, 4 to 12 million tonnes of plastic waste is discharged into the sea [worldwide[1]], and the production of plastics is set to multiply by 10 by 2025.

[IFREMER led] a study on the impact of micro-plastics on oysters and other marine molluscs, which was published on 2 February 2016 in the American magazine PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)[2]. The study was carried out by the IFREMER Marine Environment Sciences Laboratory (LEMAR – Laboratoire des Sciences de l'Environnement Marin, UMR CNRS-UBO-IRD-Ifremer), Cedre (Centre de Documentation de Recherche d’Expérimentations) and Belgium's ILVO (Instituut poor Landbouw en Visserijonderzoek). [Editor's note: the study found that exposure to polystyrene microparticles affected oysters in a number of ways with, in particular, “reproductive disruption” leading to “significant impacts on offspring”].

A project [on micro-plastics] at the national level will be launched within IFREMER. The areas of the project will cover different aspects: the materials themselves and how they degrade, the dynamics of their distribution (water column, sediments, biota), their colonisation by micro-organisms, their impacts on marine organisms, including through ingestion and transfer through food chains. But IFREMER is not alone in having identified this as an emergency. Concern about micro-plastics is shared by numerous other organisations and researchers.

What are some of the practical results of your work?

Chantal Compère: Ifremer is involved in several projects. There is, for example, a project currently being conducted with industrial partners (EEL Energy) based on the recovery of marine energy. The idea is to replicate the undulations of an eel and to try to recover marine energy from tidal currents. It involves energy conversion using an undulating membrane (a rubber membrane), with energy recovered using distributed converters from the movement of a pre-stressed membrane that is set in motion by the action of the current. It is bio-mimicry: we mimic marine organisms and reproduce the way they function. The project is under development; we are involved in the project alongside teams from a test site at Boulogne-sur-Mer.

There is also a lot being done on nautical eco-innovation, and we work with shipbuilding yards. I can cite for example Gwalaz, an eco-innovative first in the domain of boats. For example, rather than making boat hulls from polymers and composite materials (fibreglass, for example), hulls can be made from bio-sourced material, for example flax fibre, cork, balsawood and partially bio-based resin; we mainly use natural biomass. Boats made from conventional materials have a long life but are more polluting when it comes to recycling them.

Do you participate in European projects?

Chantal Compère: Yes, we are involved in several projects supported by European funds. There are for example projects to install infrastructure and observatories on the seabed. The FixO3 project (Fixed Point Open Ocean Observatory Network) is a European project that aims to integrate fixed-location European observatories and to promote access to these infrastructures for the international community. We can also highlight the NeXOS project (Next Generation Web-Enabled Sensors for the Monitoring of a Changing Ocean) or EMSO (European Multidisciplinary Seafloor and Water Column Observatory).

Further information:

  • EEL Energy is a project to test a tidal converter capable of generating renewable energy from ocean currents, with industrial-scale production expected to start during 2016: http://www.eel-energy.fr
  • The Gwalaz was the first eco-trimaran constructed from biocomposites, and designed to be recyclable. IFREMER was involved in the development and testing of the vessel, which launched in 2013: http://www.kairos-jourdain.com/fr/biocomposites/9/gwalaz.html
  • The FixO3 project, supported by EU research funds, seeks to coordinate and integrate the work of EU countries' oceanographic observatories around the world. The project started in September 2013 and runs to August 2017: http://www.fixo3.eu
  • NeXOS is a project to develop new types of fixed and mobile sensors to monitor the marine environment, which will help in the management of marine areas and to ensure that they attain good environmental status. NeXOS is supported by EU research funds and runs until September 2017: http://www.nexosproject.eu

EMSO is a large-scale network for marine research, which coordinates ocean monitoring activities and carries out projects related to the use of marine data: http://www.emso-eu.org