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This floating greenhouse may be the future of our food

Using the sun and saltwater to grow food.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Architects’ visions for the future often take the shape of costly, large-scale utopias. Most of them never get built, others quickly turn into white elephants, decadent buildings in the future they were trying to anticipate. Yet a recent project seems to belong to a different breed.

Composed of a wood and plastic dome and a base of recycled plastic drums, the Jellyfish Barge is a floating greenhouse that desalinates seawater to irrigate and grow plants. Mimicking the natural phenomenon of the water cycle, one solar panel located by the base of the barge heats up the salted or polluted water and makes it evaporate, turning it into 150 liters per day of clean, fresh water. This water gets recycled over and over into a hydroponic system, which allows crops to grow in an inert bed of clay enriched by mineral nutrients.

The Jellyfish Barge in the Milan harbor.

“We can save 70% of water compared to traditional cultivation,” explains Cristiana Favretto, cofounder at Studiomobile, the Italian architecture duo that came up with the original concept. In 2012, an installation explaining the project was in display at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Professor Stefano Mancuso, a botanist from the University of Florence, fell in love with it and offered his deep understanding of plants to improve it. A first prototype was implemented under the acronym Pnat (Plants Nature and Technology), a think tank founded by Studiomobile and Mancuso’s team to develop projects merging design and biology.

The Jellyfish Barge is currently floating on the Milan Darsena, displayed until Oct. 31 as one of the projects of EXPO 2015, the universal exhibition whose current edition focuses on food and nutrition. You can walk inside it (or watch it from this webcam). It has an area of approximately 70 square meters (753.5 square feet), the size of an average Brooklyn backyard. Once inside, you can even pick its produce: radicchio and lettuce leaves.

Matteo de Mayda
Hydroponic lettuce grown on the Jellyfish Barge.

“The water the barge produces is distilled, like the one we all use for ironing,” Favretto explains. “So initially we were adding solutions of mineral nutrients. After several tests, Mancuso understood that we could replace them with seawater. In fact, if we add up to 15% of seawater we can obtain a larger water mass and increase the crops’ nutritional value, without altering their flavor.”

Modules can be combined to create a marketplace.

Jellyfish Barge was born to be on the sea. With the world population growing steadily, the demand for food in 2050 could be 60% higher than today (pdf). Yet, drought, floods and desertification are severely shrinking the amount of arable land and fresh water available for agriculture. The idea of using the sea surface to cultivate food and its water to grow it is intriguing, especially if you consider the barge’s expected monthly output: 1,200 plants such as strawberries, tomatoes, peas, mint, spinaches and basically anything that isn’t corn or tubers, which could still grow in six containers situated on the barge’s outdoor part and using traditional cultivation in soil.

“It’s meant mainly for coastal areas affected by scarcity of food and fresh water,” Favretto continues, “There are already many of them, from Northern Africa to the Middle East. It could also be a solution for areas in which land that is naturally fertile becomes useless after being flooded with seawater. It’s already happening in the Bay of Bengal, in India.”

Coastal cities that are naturally exposed to rising sea levels could also welcome the barge. Especially those that, like New York, already have an established community of urban farmers. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is expected to visit EXPO in the upcoming weeks, has already expressed interest in the floating greenhouse.

“Our dream is having autonomous communities on the cities’ margins, living on floating infrastructures that produce food, water and energy,” says Favretto, who together with Pnat is currently working on a plan to industrialize the project.

“Big constructions are obsolete,” she adds “The future will be small and modular.”

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