Sioen, co-founder of Blue Cluster for sustainable seas and oceans

Setting up the non-profit association “Blue Cluster” together with 8 equally engaged companies, was a concrete step towards sustainable seas and marine and towards coastal biodiversity. As set in SDG 14, we aim to manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems. In addition, we’re enhancing development and sustainable use of ocean-based resources.

Sioen co-founder of Blue Cluster

Both innovation and sustainability are integral parts of our strategy. This requires concrete actions and targets. One important action in preservation and innovation in the field of marine and coastal protection is the creation of the non-profit organisation “Blue Cluster”. The goal of the Blue Cluster is to set up improved, cross-sector partnerships and closer collaboration between knowledge centres and government institutions in order to encourage new investments and realise innovative projects in the Belgian part of the North Sea and beyond.

Blue Growth

Food supply, sustainable energy supply, climate adaptation, flood safety, water transport and raw material supply are globally linked sectors of blue growth. Solutions to these societal challenges can mean direct economic added value for numerous Flemish companies active in blue subsectors.

Sectors such as aquaculture, adaptation to sea level rise and climate change, coastal tourism, marine biotechnology, energy from the sea and exploitation of the seabed have a great innovation potential and can still grow considerably.

Flanders Maritime Cluster, which already existed for ten years but which mainly focused on offshore wind energy and networking, is now part of the Blue Cluster.

Part of Flanders innovation clusters

The 'Blue Cluster' is now the sixth innovation cluster (others are, among others, the chemical, agro-food and logistics sectors). The Agency for Innovation and Enterprise (VLAIO) gave the go-ahead for this in early March.

Flanders’ government supports the clusters with up to EUR 500,000 in operating funds per year for a period of ten years. A condition is that the private sector contributes at least the same amount every year. On top of this, the region provides another EUR 95 million every year for research and innovation projects that are the result of the clusters to support their members' competitiveness. Each cluster is evaluated every three years.

The Blue Cluster also believes it can play an active role in the innovation programme 'Moonshot' to realise breakthrough technologies in the transition to a low-carbon and circular economy over the next 20 years.

Partners & scope

The founding partners are: Colruyt, DEME, Econopolis, INVE, Jan De Nul, Sioen Industries, Tractebel Engineering, Vanbreda Risk & Benefits, Vyncke and ZERI.

Currently, the Blue Cluster has about 140 members, 111 of which belong to the regular business community and three quarters of them to the SME segment. The ports, just like the knowledge institutes, are counted among the associate members. In time, it is expected that the number of member companies will double.

The operation of the Blue Cluster is positioned within a broader scope. Renewable energy is only one of our six work areas. The entire operation is based on two overarching concepts, i.e. ecology and the sustainability of marine life on the one hand, and the smart sea concept with the use of data on the other.

Coastal protection

The first scope of operation concentrates on coastal protection. Global warming causes the need for Innovative coastal defence and use of mineral resources. Research projects for coastal defence are running in close symbiosis with nature, for example, by constructing and strengthening natural sandbanks below the waterline and at a certain distance from the waterline in combination with aquaculture to strengthen the eco-system.

Sustainable tourism

The second and very important field of work is blue tourism, which we hope to make sustainable in a seasonal way, with emphasis on education, among other things. The aim is to position coastal tourism in a broader framework with an offer that stands for more experience. This can be done in the form of trips to the offshore wind parks, but also through a (virtual) visit to the heritage in the coastal waters such as shipwrecks and buoys.

Sustainable marine nutrition and biotechnology

The third specific domain of work is sustainable marine nutrition & biotechnology, in which aquaculture is the most important. Together with offshore wind farm operators, Colruyt Group,DEME and Sioen are running a project to cultivate mussels on the pylons of wind turbines. Sioen is also involved in algae and seaweed cultivation for environmentally friendly food applications or the extraction of components for the pharmaceutical or cosmetics industries.

"Through the Blue Cluster, we’ve already submitted a project for basic research into the properties of algae and seaweed, with the ultimate goal of possibly developing a whole new industry," Bert Groenendaal, innovation collaborator at Sioen states. We are profiling ourselves as pioneers in the development of new industries, he adds.

Maritime Connection

The fourth work area concerns maritime connection. The domain of work here concentrates on innovations in sea and coastal shipping, with attention to clean shipping on the one hand and smart shipping on the other.

With regard to clean shipping, we are now setting up a task force that combines the search for sustainable propulsion and fuels for the ships of the future with the possible production of hydrogen on board by converting seawater, or by replacing grey hydrogen with green hydrogen or methanol produced within the areas of the offshore wind farms by means of fully renewable wind or even solar energy (with floating solar panels).

Renewable energy

The fifth work area is the production and storage of renewable energy at sea, as well as the production of fresh water. In addition to wind installations, the partners of the Blue Cluster are also looking at converting wave and tidal energy into green electricity. Climate change is already causing temporary shortages of freshwater. Current desalination technology can hardly be described as an environmentally friendly application. The aim is to make this energetic process completely greener and at the same time to provide a solution for the brine residues.

Ocean health and waste solutions

Finally, the last field of activity is ocean health & waste solutions, with the problem of plastic waste at the forefront. The Blue Cluster also pays attention to the harmful influence of micro-plastics. In addition, the organisation is following up a basic research project on the removal of hazardous waste (poisonous gas grenades) from the old munition dumps off the coast of Knokke-Heist.

Sioen for a reason

The technical textiles of Sioen can play an important role in almost all the future developments mentioned above.

  • The project “Coast Busters”, is aiming for coastal defence by including nature-inspired designs (NID).
  • Another project is the sustainable cultivation and harvesting of mussels in their respective offshore wind farms. The result: a first trial harvest yielded mussels of excellent quality.

Sioen plays a decisive role. In the integrated cultivation of extractive aquaculture species too. In addition to our textile expertise, we can also build on know-how in the production of adequate garments for people working on and around water.