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Floating sea farms: an ingenious solution to feed the world and ensure freshwater by 2050

University of South Australia Media Release

The sun and the sea – both abundant and free – are being harnessed in a unique project to create vertical sea farms floating on the ocean that can produce fresh water for drinking and agriculture.

In what is believed to be a world first, University of South Australia researchers have designed a self-sustaining solar-driven system that evaporates seawater and recycles it into freshwater, growing crops without any human involvement.

It could help address looming global shortages of freshwater and food in the decades ahead, with the world’s population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050.

Professor Haolan Xu and Dr Gary Owens from UniSA’s Future Industries Institute have developed the vertical floating sea farm which is made up of two chambers: an upper layer similar to a glasshouse and a lower water harvest chamber.

“The system works much like a wicking bed that household gardeners might be familiar with,” Dr Owen says.

“However, in this case, clean water is supplied by an array of solar evaporators that soak up the seawater, trap the salts in the evaporator body and, under the sun’s rays, release clean water vapour into the air which is then condensed on water belts and transferred to the upper plant growth chamber.”

In a field test, the researchers grew three common vegetable crops – broccoli, lettuce, and pak choi – on seawater surfaces without maintenance or additional clean water irrigation.

The system, which is powered only by solar light, has several advantages over other solar sea farm designs currently being trialled, according to Professor Xu.

“Other designs have installed evaporators inside the growth chamber which takes up valuable space that could otherwise be used for plant growth. Also, these systems are prone to overheating and crop death,” Professor Xu says.

Floating farms, where traditional photovoltaic panels harvest electricity to power conventional desalination units, have also been proposed but these are energy intensive and costly to maintain.

“In our design, the vertical distribution of evaporator and growth chambers decreases the device’s overall footprint, maximising the area for food production. It is fully automated, low cost, and extremely easy to operate, using only solar energy and seawater to produce clean water and grow crops.”

Dr Owens says their design is only proof-of-concept at this stage, but the next step is to scale it up, using a small array of individual devices to increase plant production. Meeting larger food supply needs will mean increasing both the size and number of devices.

“It is not inconceivable that sometime in the future, you might see huge farm biodomes floating on the ocean, or multiple smaller devices deployed over a large sea area.”

Their existing prototype is likely to be modified to produce a greater biomass output, including using low-cost substrate materials such as waste rice straw fibre, to make the device even cheaper to run.

The researchers have shown that the recycled water produced in this way is pure enough to drink and has less salinity than the World Health Guidelines for drinking water.

The United Nations estimates that by 2050, approximately 2.4 billion people are likely to experience water shortages. In the same period, global supply of water for agricultural irrigation is expected to decline by around 19%.

“Freshwater accounts for just 2.5% of the world’s water and most of this is not accessible because it’s trapped in glaciers, ice caps or is deep underground,” Dr Owens says. “It’s not that freshwater is dwindling either, but the small amount that exists is in ever increasing demand due to population growth and climate change.

“The fact that 97.5% of the world’s water is in our oceans – and freely available – it is an obvious solution to harness the sea and sun to address growing global shortages of water, food, and agricultural land. Adopting this technology could improve the health and welfare of billions of people globally.”

The design experiment is published in the Chemical Engineering Journal.


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  1. Phil Pryor

    Great stuff.., oceans of farm potential, healthy sea foods, huge populations fed, what could go wrong. Perhaps the ocean’s food supply of droppings, offal, off cuts and faecal flows could be organised by P Duckwit-Futton and B Joyce, with inputs from the fat frau of the west, Chubbo Clive, Merdepile Morrison and the whole of Queensland’s LNP with extra extrusions from famed broom aviator P Hanson. The nourishment for low forms of life might get refined enough for us all, eventually. Palatable? Risible…

  2. GL

    Don’t forget that we may see open slather deep sea mining in the near future. If we think the planet is screwed now then we ain’t seen nothing yet.

  3. leefe

    Well, if this one works on a large scale, it’s going to revolutionise food production. Which is why we have to be sure the massive global agribusinesses don’t get their hands on the patent and bury it.
    I’d say “Great work, USA”, but I don’t want that misinterpreted …

  4. Canguro

    The glacial creep away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources includes a trend toward ocean-based preferential siting for wind turbines, which along with this recent innovation from Uni SA’s R&D boffins should it successfully reach commercial practicability has the potential to transform shorelines around the planet and might just have the knock-on effect of ushering in an era for humanity akin to that posited in the 1995 American post-apocalyptic action film Waterworld, an epic flick which posited, among other things, the complete melting of the polar ice caps. Another example where fiction will eventually be realised as fact, given the irreversible forces now in play within the earth’s oceans and atmosphere.

    Feeding 10 billion seems a task of such magnitude that one wonders how it will be achieved, but humans have proved time and again to be the nonpareil problem solvers… a skill that has birthed mixed blessings in terms of digging ourselves into holes and then having to find ways to get out of them, but the role of imagination has always had an intimate relationship to science in terms of discovery, invention & innovation, and is as urgently required in these times as it ever was, and perhaps even more so given the existential challenges facing not only humanity but all life on this little blue orb nestled in its spacetime frame around its local star in the seeming endlessness of the universe.

  5. New England Cocky

    Uhm ….. being something of a scientific sceptic ….. what happens when the finite sea water resource begins to shrink so that all marine life is disadvantaged by over-crowding?
    What will be the effects of extracting seawater and turning it into fresh drinking water on the whole Earth Water Cycle?
    Perhaps Canguro has a point …..

  6. andyfiftysix

    It wont get up.
    Durron will complain that it will cool down the oceans , create a shortage of water and bring down realestate prices.
    Evidence,……you dont need any

  7. John Young

    Check out the Vertical 3-Dimensional Triple-bottom Line Ocean Farming Operations model being researched and promoted since 2014 by “Thimble Island Ocean Farm CSF” (CSF = Community Supported Fishery),

    Their GreenWave replicates and scales regenerative ocean farms to create jobs and protect the planet: “We train and support ocean farmers in the era of climate change, working with coastal communities around the world to create a blue economy – built and led by farmers.”

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