By Jody McCutcheon
Eco-architect extraordinaire Vincent Callebaut is at it again, with an arrestingly forward-thinking idea. Composed of a group of apartment complexes known as “oceanscrapers,” the project is dubbed Aequorea (inspired by the bioluminescent jellyfish aequorea victoria) and will be located off Rio de Janeiro’s famous shores. Its completion date is around 2050, and its inhabitants will be climate-change refugees. How’s that for forward thinking?
Aequorea has been imagined as a fossil fuel–free community that relies on biomass and ocean ingredients to sustainably power and feed itself. Spiraling downward one thousand metres below sea level, each ‘oceanscraper’ will be 3D-printed from algoplast, a composite material made from algae and plastic waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Like seashells, the towers will self-build, with calcium carbonate from the water accumulating on the exoskeleton in a form of natural calcification.
Inhabitants will enter each tower through a lush, mangrove-covered marina situated on a half-kilometre–wide floating dome on the water surface. From there they will descend through stacked layers of residential spaces, science labs, offices, hotels, sports fields and aquaponic farms. Each tower, or more specifically, each village, will house twenty thousand people.
The ocean can be a dangerous place, but Aequorea’s design protects against meteorological and elemental volatility. The twisting towers are resistant to hydrostatic pressure, the outer walls thickening the deeper they go, protecting from increased pressure. The structure’s geometry counteracts marine whirlpools, thus reducing motion sickness, while double-shell ballasting counteracts natural buoyancy and ensures stability in the event of earthquake or rough waters.
Just as clever are Aequorea’s eco-friendly elements. The project eschews fossil fuels, as mentioned, and nuclear energy, instead using several ocean-based energy sources. Light will be harvested from luciferin produced by bioluminescent organisms. Electricity will be extracted from sea currents with an ocean-floor turbine, and also from the change in temperature between the warm surface water and deeper, cooler water via an ocean thermal-energy conversion (OTEC) power plant. The OTEC plant will also desalinate water to produce fresh water for drinking and aquaculture.
Microalgae bioreactors will manage heating, climate control, recycling of liquid and organic waste and energy production through photosynthesis and biomethanation, while natural air renewal will be possible by seawater electrolysis or convection through wind tunnels. The hydrogen and carbon extracted from seawater through osmotic pressure will produce algae biofuel to provide emission-free power for submarines and ships. The process of transforming seawater to biofuel also helps eliminate carbon dioxide from the water, thereby neutralizing ocean acidification.
Food will be grown on-site, of course. Sustenance will come from algae, mollusks and plankton, all of which are rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins. If these victuals don’t suit your taste, you’ll appreciate the surface-level greenhouses offering organic orchards, vegetable gardens and farming fields. And you can always rely on sustainable fishing. After all, the ocean is right outside your living room. All food will be distributed in reusable, biodegradable bulk containers.
Despite the fact that we must wait at least three decades to see Callebaut’s project, there are no glaring drawbacks. Aequorea will rely a great deal on marine life—for shelter, energy, food, even for health care.
Through the study of marine life, scientists will hope to manage diseases like cancer, AIDS and heart disease. Through this ambitious architecture project, we’d love to see a host of websites broadcasting from inside, teaching us more about what really happens in the parallel universe that lies right here on Earth, below the waters. The ocean certainly has its cruel, unforgiving side. But as Aequorea hopes to discover, it can also be very generous indeed – and even a place to call home.