"No water, no life. No blue, no green."
This quote from Sylvia Earle, an American marine biologist who holds the record for the deepest walk on the sea floor, speaks to the importance of the ocean and its connection to living things.
The ocean also is closely tied to our economic prosperity and traditional ways of life.
At the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, our scientists and engineers are conducting research and development to advance the “blue economy”—defined by the World Bank as “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystems.”
The value of the blue economy is estimated at $2.5 trillion and growing.
The PNNL team seeks to advance research and develop technologies that can support existing and emerging blue economy industries.
A range of projects—in collaboration with government, industry, academic and community partners—focus on wave, tidal and offshore wind energy; environmental monitoring; biofuels from sustainable feedstocks; mineral extraction from seawater; and marine carbon dioxide removal.
This research often leverages the unique capabilities of our PNNL Sequim campus, DOE’s only coastal and marine sciences laboratory.
Located on the Sequim Bay in Washington state, this facility provides direct access to seawater and specialized laboratory facilities and research instrumentation. It also is home to more than 80 staff members with expertise in biotechnology, biogeochemistry, ecosystems science, toxicology and Earth systems modeling.
For example, researchers’ efforts to aid the responsible development of ocean energy include understanding the acoustic impact on marine mammals and fish and their behavior near marine energy devices.
PNNL also designs, deploys and operates highly instrumented buoys that collect data to inform the development and deployment of offshore wind technology.
Our modeling experts analyze ocean currents, tides and waves to help pinpoint ideal locations for ocean energy devices. And their models provide valuable insights into future climate scenarios that support coastal resilience efforts.
In one recent effort, researchers developed a nanogenerator that efficiently converts wave energy—even from the slow, more uniform waves of the open ocean—into electricity.
Their innovation could power sensors and other equipment at sea that monitor wave and weather data to help protect coastal communities.
PNNL supports remote or island communities in addressing their energy challenges, such as the island of Islesboro, Maine, which experiences frequent power outages due to extreme weather.
Working with the local energy committee, PNNL is helping to identify resilient, low-cost models of power that are fossil-free by 2030 and from which all residents can benefit equally.
Scientists at PNNL are exploring approaches to extract important minerals from seawater. Along with collaborators from the University of Washington, they discovered a simple way to isolate pure magnesium salt from seawater that promises a cheaper and less energy-intensive alternative to conventional mining or evaporation methods.
Similarly, PNNL is exploring methods to use magnetic nanoparticles to cost-effectively extract lithium from seawater and other water sources.
In yet another project, scientists are exploring how to use the ocean to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help mitigate climate change.
They are studying novel approaches for marine carbon dioxide removal that help accelerate natural processes to capture and store CO2.
Their efforts combine electrochemical and biological strategies and include plans to install a first-of-its-kind pilot system as part of a demonstration project this spring.
The ocean is critical to life on Earth. It is used to move goods; produce food, medicine and energy; provide jobs; support recreation and tourism; and supply the oxygen we breathe.
Researchers at PNNL are working to expand and protect these gifts from the sea.
Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. To read previous Director's Columns, please visit our Director's Column Archive.