Now you can read us on your iPhone and iPad! Check out the BTRtoday app.
The world today has an immeasurable number of problems, the majority of which are so relatively obscure and diluted that many people either don’t know about them or simply don’t care. That’s understandable in a world with more than 7 billion people separated into 196 nation states spread across six populated continents.
However, some issues are so pervasive and entwined with our species’ existence on this planet that we can’t help but think about their global consequences.
In 2016, one of these issues is fresh water.
Back in June, NASA released satellite data that showed just how depleted our fresh water resources are becoming; 21 of the world’s 37 largest underground aquifers have reached their “sustainability tipping points,” meaning more fresh water is being used than replaced. By 2031, half the planet’s population could be living in “high water stress areas,” where there simply isn’t enough water to meet demand.
Add to those facts that one in ten people worldwide (663 million) don’t have access to clean water, and it’s clear how extensive the problem already is.
The earth is three-quarters covered by the water of its vast oceans and seas, but of course that water isn’t ingestible due to its salt content. In fact, 97 percent of all our planet’s water is salt water, and a significant portion of the earth’s fresh water is frozen in our polar ice caps, further divvying the supply for human beings.
One possible solution is staring mankind directly in the face from beaches and boats across the globe: if there was a way to convert salt water into fresh water efficiently, humanity could increase its potential water supply by 264 billion gallons.
Desalination, however, is a tricky process. Many advocates have decried the process for the overall negative impact it would have on natural habitats and environments, as well as through the use of fossil fuels. That’s not to mention the overwhelming cost and labor that large-scale desalination would require. More than 1.6 billion people live in countries that already “lack necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers,” let alone what they would need to kickstart major desalination efforts.
Though large-scale desalination projects have already been introduced in places like California—which happens to be situated in the richest country on earth—it’s fair to wonder whether or not the process is applicable on a global scale.
PNAT, an Italian think tank, has crafted its own solution to the issue of water shortage—albeit on a much smaller scale. Its baby is the Jellyfish Barge, an “autonomous growing facility” designed to help reduce the use of fledgling natural resources, namely water, in food production.
“We know that the population is increasing, and that people will have to eat in the future,” PNAT researcher Camilla Pandolfi tells BTRtoday, “so we wanted to find a solution that would provide food without interfering with existing resources.”
Designed to sit on the water’s surface, the Jellyfish Barge consists of a “wooden-base floating on recycled plastic drums, supporting a greenhouse, which is surrounded by seven solar desalination units able to produce up to 150 liters per day of clean fresh water from salt, brackish, or polluted water.”
The barge operates as a completely closed loop, and its design has received a number of awards. Its compact structure is perhaps its most notable feature, and Pandolfi says it was a key contributing factor in the device’s creation.
“The dimension of the Jellyfish Barge is quite small, because we didn’t want a huge structure that would have a lot of expenses in maintenance, installation, and so on,” she says. “We wanted something that could be a very easy product to install and start your own cultivation.”
Converting ocean or seawater into usable fresh water isn’t just about removing salt, though—it’s also about removing pollutants. Pandolfi explains that the purification units on the barges are customizable based on what is most prevalent in the water being filtered.
“If it’s only seawater, we can use solar desalination, meaning that we use the energy to evaporate and condensate the fresh water—basically what’s happening in the natural water cycle,” she says. “Or, we can include the system with more filters and biofilters to separate the water and get rid of pollutants.”
As PNAT envisions, the grand idea for these barges is to create cultivation centers around them in coastal cities across the world. This would generate not only fresh produce, but also markets to purchase it directly.
“You can imagine in New York, for example, how much space you have for small installations of Jellyfish Barges,” Pandolfi says. “You can provide not only a cultivation place, but a place of social interaction where people can go and buy their local food. You can organize markets for selling the products, and for other social activities.”
Though this vision is somewhat far off—as well as the visions of other desalination projects worldwide—the fresh water crisis is creating motivation that will inevitably speed up humanity’s shift toward filtering seawater. It’s a field of research that is already growing quickly, and becoming more and more critical as our resources move toward depletion.
“The shortage of water is something that is already happening, it’s not something that will happen in the future,” Pandolfi says. “It’s causing a motivation, and there is more awareness among people about the sustainability of production now.”