Turning underground laboratories in the Baltic Sea region into facilities for innovation, business and science

The underuse of underground infrastructures in the Baltic Sea region is a problem that has been identified clearly recently.
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The potential of the existing unique knowledge base and identified opportunities for innovations and business to respond to this challenge through cooperation between different actors has also been recognised. To tackle the challenge, the Interreg Baltic Sea Region programme funded the Baltic Sea Underground Innovation Network (BSUIN), which offered an excellent learning experience for the project consortium, its partners and other stakeholders in 2017–2020. The consortium, which was led by the University of Oulu Kerttu Saalasti Institute, comprised 12 partners from eight countries in the Baltic Sea region. The outcome of the project was a web-based tool developed to collate and disseminate information on this field and its activities. The European Underground Laboratories Association was established to continue the cooperation.

The goal of the project was to improve access to underground laboratories in the Baltic Sea region from the viewpoint of innovation, business and science by building knowledge about underground facilities, their operation, user experiences and safety as well as to gain wider visibility through networking. The goal was achieved by characterising underground facilities, developing services for their administrators and improving underground environments as well as through joint communication and marketing.

1) a web-based tool (undergroundlabs.network) was developed as an open platform for all information on underground laboratories and for marketing underground laboratory services and facilities.
2) European Underground Laboratories Association (EUL) was established in November 2020 to continue the cooperation.

The new association was established by seven partner organisations and two partners of the BSUIN project. This association set up in compliance with German legislation is open to new members (organisations and individuals) associated with underground laboratories and facilities or interested in research and other activities related to them.

The EUL coordinates the open online platform, works together with the BSUIN project partners, and actively seeks new members. The online platform contains information, reports and instructions as well as business and service models suitable for underground facilities. The online platform helps potential users of underground laboratories to find optimal facilities for their purposes and the organisations administrating them to develop their facilities and services.

During the BSUIN project, a number of communication events were organised to inform potential users, politicians and the general public about the possibilities of underground facilities. Online seminars, conferences, workshops, events and social media activities (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) have improved the visibility of underground laboratories.

The project also produced a significant number of scientific conference publications and articles, which provided academic communities with additional and diverse information. Having a session on underground laboratories included in the international conference of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in 2020 was one of the project’s key achievements. The event was so successful that it led to three sessions at the 2021 conference and the accession of new partners to the network.

Towards a more sustainable Baltic Sea region

The partners of the BSUIN project worked together to achieve the project's main objectives. The consortium members’ work also supported the achievement of the goal set in the Interreg Baltic Sea Region 2014–2020 programme of sustainable development in the Baltic Sea region.

Sustainable development was addressed in many project activities. We set out to find innovative ways of reusing underground laboratories. Some of these facilities had been decommissioned, while others were about to cease operation related to their original purpose. The guiding principle was creating something new from the old. ‘Old’ in this context refers to all the knowledge possessed by people working in underground facilities as well as unused space and materials.

Underground facilities are highly suitable for a wide variety of purposes. Examples include crop cultivation, storage, energy production, tourism etc. We hope that the project outcomes will provide insights into the unique business and testing opportunities associated with sustainable development.

In a workshop for the project group members, we also considered using underground laboratory facilities to promote sustainable development perspectives and to teach and learn about them. In long-term plans, underground facilities may also mean new development opportunities far away from large centres.

In the decades to come, sustainability will become a key factor in competitiveness and success. Sustainable development is a highly multidisciplinary area that inspires new project ideas, for example by combining the Green Deal objectives with business development of underground facilities.

Meetings reinforce a common identity in the Baltic Sea region

An international project team helps develop many ideas. The BSUIN project gave us an outstanding opportunity to learn more about the common identity and cultural differences in the Baltic Sea region.

We discussed our common identity in an online workshop in September 2020. We asked ourselves: What have we learned about and/or contributed to the common identity and international value of the Baltic Sea region?

One of the most important things we learned is that while the countries in the Baltic Sea region are different, we share a similar mindset. Getting to know people from other countries helps to understand our common interests and challenges. We face many similar challenges and opportunities and have strong historical links. One observation was that we are closer to each other than we realise.

The Baltic Sea region has great potential. By working together, we can become a highly competitive global player and a leading innovation actor in this field. Individual countries are not as attractive to strategic partners and investors as a large united area. We have a great deal of mining expertise and knowledge about operating in underground facilities in the Baltic Sea region, which facilitated the BSUIN project. We found that there are unused underground facilities in this area, and that their owners face similar challenges. We discovered a common will to establish the European Underground Laboratories Association. In the future, it may have a major impact. It is one way of combining different funding possibilities to achieve common objectives.

In the decades to come, closer cooperation in the Baltic Sea region will be a logical step forward. We have much to give to each other, and a great deal to achieve through joint action.

All project reports are publicly accessible on the BSUIN project website. Among other things, it contains information on:

  • Underground food production: An overview with examples of the possibilities and benefits of using underground facilities for food production and the development of technology and practices.
  • Service design: Service concepts for user interfaces and a joint service offer for the user rights network: a description of service concepts with the value propositions created for the ULs.
  • Best practices and experiences in developing underground environments.

Author: Eija-Riitta Niinikoski, BSUIN Project Manager

Further information on BSUIN project outcomes: