Monday 29 August 2011

New Marine and Energy Research Campus and Commercial Cluster in Cork

Just 1 per cent of our GDP comes from the maritime economy, but the new Marine and Energy Research Campus and Commercial Cluster in Cork hopes to change that

IRELAND’S “perfect storm” may be a popular catchphrase for the state of the economy. For the movers and shakers creating a new national marine research campus, however, it is a metaphor for opportunity.

Commodore Mark Mellett of the Naval Service and Dr Valerie Cummins, director of the new Marine and Energy Research Campus and Commercial Cluster (Merc3), do not immediately equate high winds with havoc, or geographical peripherality with isolation. Both see many advantages to a coastal border with some the world’s roughest seas, generating a premium wave resource and a third of Europe’s wind.

“It’s generally believed that the south Atlantic is the toughest ocean, but we often have far worse conditions within our area of jurisdiction,” says Mellett, who was recently promoted to flag officer or head of the Naval Service. “That presents many opportunities if you think about it – not just in harnessing renewable energy, but in providing a platform for ship design and technology of the future.”

“Ireland has the third-largest sea area, and the largest maritime area to land mass, in the EU – and we derive only 1 per cent of gross domestic product from the maritime economy,” says Cummins, formerly head of UCC’s Coastal Marine Research Centre.

This compares to 20 per cent of GDP for Norway, 11 per cent for Denmark and 5 per cent for Britain.

A recent SEAI study forecast 52,000 jobs in marine renewables by 2030, if the right supports are put in place. Cummins firmly believes much more can be made of the human capital already engaged. UCC’s ocean energy expert, Dr Tony Lewis, is “one of our best natural assets”, she says, given his international credibility.

Scotland and Portugal are already moving ahead in renewable energy, and ocean energy interests have expressed concerns about a lack of similar State commitment here. Cummins, whose sees the glass half full, cites examples such as ESB International’s Westwave project – which aims to generate five megawatts of ocean energy by 2015 – as having considerable potential.

Some of the key sectors that will be represented in the new research campus created by existing institutions at Cork harbour are offshore safety, shipping, logistics, and transport, renewable energy, maritime security and marine recreation.

The partners for the new centre are the Naval Service at Haulbowline, University College Cork (UCC), Cork Institute of Technology and its constituent, the National Maritime College of Ireland (NMCI) at Ringaskiddy.

Together they aim to build the world’s largest marine renewable energy research centre by 2013. A year later, they hope to create 70 new research jobs, and they plan to house five campus companies by 2015. The target by 2016 is to have a world renowned cluster, with a minimum of two foreign direct investment

clients. One such client is already committed, and a number of small and medium-sized enterprises have forged links with Merc3 in the maritime security area.

Cummins says Merc3 has evolved following an investment by the State in competitive research at UCC, administered by agencies such as Science Foundation Ireland, the Marine Institute, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), as well as funding from European research programmes.

The main funders of the campus are the Higher Education Authority, through the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions; Bord Gáis; the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; and the Glucksman Foundation.

Cummins, who grew up in Blackrock, Cork, on the River Lee, remembers how the late maritime historian Dr John de Courcy Ireland was one of the few voices to emphasise the potential of our maritime resource.

Merc3 has a series of technical groups in train, and is working on demonstration projects for next year. Planning permission has been submitted for the UCC Beaufort laboratory, which will house a national ocean energy test tank facility, and will complement energy research at UCC’s Tyndall institute.

However, Merc3’s relationship with the national maritime college – one of the few institutions that almost guarantees employment on graduation – will be key to its development.

When the NMCI was built as a €53 million public-private partnership, it was fitted with the world’s largest range of ship bridge simulation suites, and with facilities to educate 750 students and to engage in applied research. Merc3 aims to nurture its research dimension and, by extension, that of both merchant marine and Naval Service cadets.

It will allow SMEs to draw on the experience of mariners who know about cables, moorings and who understand the logistical dimension to work in the marine environment. As Cummins says, there is a €15.4 billion global market in maritime security alone that can be tapped into.

Merc3’s four “pillars” are ocean engineering, ecosystems governance, nautical science and maritime technology development.

Dr Peter Heffernan, the director of the Marine Institute in Galway, is among the stakeholders represented on the board, with Peter Coyle, formerly of Enterprise Ireland, as non-executive chairman.

“Companies do see Merc3 as a knowledge cluster, and co-location is very attractive for them,” Coyle says.

“It’s about joined-up thinking, but that can take a lot of work to create a common mindset,” Cummins says. “Sensible things don’t happen overnight.”

Lights, cameras, helicopter action Marine technology from Merc3

THE DESIGN of remotely controlled helicopters; satellite surveillance systems to detect and pinpoint pollution; and the development of advanced underwater lighting systems for divers are just some of the projects the Naval Service stands to benefit from through its involvement with Merc3.

For Commodore Mark Mellett, this will help the defence wing to meet its core aim of becoming the “smartest, most innovative and responsive naval institution in the world” by 2016.

The recently appointed new flag officer for the Naval Service is a Mayoman who received a distinguished service medal for his role in the detention of the Brime , a drug-smuggling yacht, in 1993. He has a master’s degree in government and public policy and a PhD in oceans governance.

Research is part of everyone’s job description in the Naval Service now, he says. “Who better than a radar operator in mid-Atlantic to suggest how equipment can be improved?” he says.

Technology is not a key determinant in making the most of maritime assets, he says, though good governance of the resource is crucial.

This depends on three pillars: government and policy; market and economics; and the citizen and civil society, he adds.

“It is vital that the citizen is kept fully informed” and engaged, he told a recent convention of Mayo Associations.

Small and medium-sized enterprises that the Naval Service has been working with through Merc3 include Reamda in Tralee, Co Kerry, Seftec in Cork and Cathx Ocean in Kildare.

The Reamda collaboration involves the design of unmanned air vehicles or drones for maritime surveillance and pollution monitoring.

Seftec is developing wireless technology to track firefighters in enclosed spaces, while Cathx Ocean is working on lighter, more advanced underwater lighting systems for divers and for search beams on ships.

The Naval Service is also working with the University of Limerick’s mobile and marine robotics research centre on remotely operated vehicle (ROV) design.

The UL centre’s director, Dr Dan Toal, explains that the “smarts” employed in ocean engineering are changing from conventional oil and gas production to Earth observation – as in monitoring systems and prototype ocean-energy installations.

“Due to climate change and other environmental threats, there is a growing requirement for monitoring the world’s oceans,” he says.

“There is great potential for development and roll-out of renewable ocean energy off our coasts, and there is substantial potential for discovery of oil and gas in Ireland’s large seabed territories.”

The UL centre has 10 years’ experience in marine robotics, and recently built a 1,000m depth-rated ROV Latis , which it hopes to commercialise.

This 22nd-century device has an autopilot to allow for precise control of robot motion under the sea while working on underwater structures, wave energy devices and sensor platforms. “We at UL have a vision that is shared by Merc3 and other marine partners – a vision of an expanding ocean sector in renewable ocean energy and ocean monitoring and protection,” Toal says.

Irish Times

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