Exploring the Deepest Depths
Rainbowfish Ocean Technology wants to help man reach one of the few remaining places on earth it has yet to explore, the Hadal Zone.
These funnel shaped areas at the bottom of the ocean are located at least 6,500 metres below the surface. Species yet to be discovered and even information about the origins of Earth are just a few of the things that could be hiding here.
For scientists, the Hadal Zone is the final frontier for oceanology. Places such as the Mariana Trench, located more than 10,000 metres deep, contain a treasure trove of information. Mr Chi Chen, Senior Project Manager at Rainbowfish Ocean Technology, believes every deepsea research voyage provides scientist a chance to discover new living species and helps us better understand the history of the ocean.
“Hadal Zones are funnel shaped which means they are accumulators. Additionally, the current in Hadal Zones are slow and steady which allows sediment to record the history of the ocean. For example, by analysing the carbon content of individual layers, we can find the biomass of different ages,” Mr Chen details. “We can also learn a lot from creatures in the Hadal Zones,
especially the microbes living in such extreme conditions. These have become very important for the pharmaceutical industry.”
Rainbowfish has already organised two exploration voyages to the Mariana Trench. The company sent research vessels that launched full ocean depth landers capable of reaching the bottom of the sea. The landers were able to film the deep depths of the ocean and collected water, sediment and creature samples.
The development of that technology was all part of the company’s plan to build a manned vessel capable of reaching depths of 11,000 metres. The goal is to take scientists to the Mariana Trench in 2023. But with harsh conditions not like anything recorded on the surface, Rainbowfish has found itself in uncharted waters.
“I think sending a manned vehicle to the extreme depths of the ocean is like sending a manned spaceship to Mars. Although humans have already sent many probes to Mars, we still want to be the first to step on the red planet. However, the challenges of going from an unmanned mission to a manned one are great,” Mr Chen explains.
He continues, “From a technical aspect, a manned submarine is basically an unmanned vessel equipped with a much stronger cabin sphere; a robust and reliable life support system; and a wellfunctioning wireless communication and positioning system. However, none of these added systems are easy to design or assemble.”
The Rainbowfish Project was initiated by Chinese scientist Prof. Weicheng Cui who began his journey as the deputy director of a manned submersible that reached a depth of 7,000 metres. From there he launched Rainbowfish in 2014 with the goal to build a full ocean depth vessel that was capable of sending scientists from all over the world to the deepest points of the ocean. However, this is only part of the firm’s vision.
Deep sea solutions provider
The manned submersible capable of reaching the extreme depths of the Mariana Trench may get most of the headlines, but Rainbowfish is developing what it calls a Movable Laboratory of Hadal Science and Technology.
According to Mr Chen, the company is working on two research vessels; two manned submersibles; an autonomous and remote-operated vehicle; and servable landers. It is all part of the company’s plan to become a deep sea solutions provider.
“We would like to be the Ocean X of China. Not only are we building a submersible vessel capable of reaching the deepest part of the ocean, but we wish to provide a whole set of solutions for underwater research, engineering and entertainment projects,” Mr Chen noted.
Prof Chui wasn’t alone in launching Rainbowfish. He was joined by Dr. Xin Wu, a PhD classmate of his, who has focused on commercialising the deep sea technological advancements that Prof. Cui is developing.
The company has launched deepsea intelligent equipment solutions where it provides vehicles to scientists interested in studying deep-sea science and technology; offshore marine geophysical resource companies wanting to reach materials; and even tourists interested in seeing what lies at the bottom of the ocean.
In addition to this, Rainbowfish has established business units for ocean big-data services and deep-sea bio-technology. Commercialisation is important for the company as it looks to reach its ambitious goals without taking any capital from state-owned enterprises. Instead, the company has been thinking outside the box in order to establish a wide range of mutually beneficial partnerships.
Built to last
The company is one of a few working on the relatively new “State Support + Private Capital” model that is being used to support high-tech project development in China. Instead of being funded by state-owned enterprises, Rainbowfish has focused on private capital and commercialisation with government support coming by other means.
“The government, no matter central or local, only supports us with policies. All of our shareholders come from the private sector. This has meant that commercialisation of our technology and what we acquire is our top priority,” Mr Chen explains.
One policy implemented by the government was the creation of the Lingang Oceanic High-Tech Industrial Park inside the New Special Area of the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone. This area is home to the Rainbowfish research and development centre and provides companies engaged in deep sea exploration, ocean engineering equipment, marine resources development and marine medicine with various benefits including assistance with rent and talent recruitment.
Rainbowfish also has a close relationship with several domestic institutes. Prof. Cui established the Hadal Science and Technology Research Centre at Shanghai Ocean University and is the chair professor at Westlake University as well. According to Mr Chen, his research team at the both institutes helps power research and development for the project.
“China is emphasising the integration of industries, academia and R&D. We are proving this idea is possible by transforming high-end research to be commercialised,” Mr Chen states. “Although we are not a big company, we do have support from many sides, including the government. What we are doing is not only about reaching the deepest part of the ocean, but also building a new model for the scientific research and its commercialisation.”
Additionally, the firm continues to seek out more partners across all backgrounds including technology, research or capital.
Mr Chen explains, “We want all of our partners to share the same goal as us. There are many challenges in having so many collaborators. It is the same for all business or research cooperation. However, these challenges and new opportunities go hand in hand. Ultimately, we are all working together for a win-win situation.”
In 2019, Ms Kristin Iglum, Consul General of the Norwegian Consulate General Shanghai, visited Lingang and met with government representatives. Local officials promoted Rainbowfish as example of what Chinese companies were accomplishing in the marine industry and discussed how Norwegian businesses could become more involved with domestic firms.
For Rainbowfish, international cooperation beyond capital is vital for its success. Since the company does not produce or manufacture its vessels, it needs to partner with suppliers from around the globe. Not only to further business goals, but also build a lasting understanding of the ocean.
“What we are doing brings attention to the ocean. It raises public interests when it comes to the ocean. Our company has even become a certificated science centre for the youth in Shanghai and many students visited us. We are happy to show them the cool side of marine science and technology. Our hope is to plant a blue seed in their mind to ensure they think about the ocean for the rest of their life. Those kids and teachers who visit are quite fascinated by what they learn. It adds excitement to the project and may even help us create a greater positive impact,” Mr Chen concluded.
Above left: Rainbowfish developed the RV Shenkuo and carried out a mission in 2018 that sent unmanned landers to the Mariana Trench. Above: Prof. Weicheng Cui, seen here aboard RV Zhangjian, founded Rainbowfish in 2014 after working on other deep sea expeditions