Pioneering Nemo's Garden project ponders U.S. installation
Now with permission to operate year-round, the team behind a unique initiative to cultivate fresh produce underwater is broadening its experiments and is considering installing a biosphere in the U.S.
A range of herbs and vegetables were successfully cultivated during the initial stage last year of the project dubbed Nemo’s Garden.
Ocean Reef Group, the company behind the Italian innovative, established several biospheres between five and 10 meters (16 to 33 feet) under the ocean surface and for the last couple of years has been using them to grow crops in sealed and sustainable underwater laboratories.
The idea was to harness the technology for large-scale production by providing an alternative solution to grow food in a sustainable, responsible way with little impact on the earth’s footprint.
Fresh water is produced automatically due to the air temperature inside the biosphere being higher than the ocean temperatures, resulting in evaporation and a 'self-generating irrigation system'.
In December 2015, Ocean Reef Group's project coordinator Gianni Fontanesi told www.freshfruitportal.com the first research phase had been successfully completed.
This year the company had five biospheres in use, and was able to rent one out to a private company and lend others to collaboration with third parties.
"We have divided the biospheres between our own ones and ones dedicated to universities and researchers," he said.
"We are using Biosphere One and Five, while Biosphere Two and Four have been dedicated to growing plants in collaboration with the University of Pisa, and Number Three has been rented for two months to a French cosmetics company which is using it as an underwater laboratory."
"This year we have successfully grown basil, onions, herbs - mint, cilantro, oregano, sage and thyme - tomatoes, marigold flowers, goji, and medical plants like pineapple sage, stevia, Escolzia Californica."
Orchids from Singapore have also been grown in the biospheres.
This year's crops have already been harvested and sent off to the University of Pisa for chemical analysis, and Fontanesi said the results would dictate the company's next steps.
After the first experiment last year, it was discovered that the essential oils in the basil crops were higher than conventionally grown basil.
A major development in the project this year is that the local council in Italy recently granted permission to the company to use the biospheres throughout the year, whereas previously their window was just from June to October.
Fontanesi said this was an exciting opportunity, as for the first time the researchers would be able to see how the plants perform under different growing conditions terms of light, temperature, humidity and levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
"Basically we are now not stopping the project as we did last year," he said.
"For logistical reasons we have decided to shrink the project a little bit, so we removed three of the biospheres for the winter as it's difficult with the conditions. But this is something great for us and we feel super positive about running year-round.
"We trying different types of biospheres, depths, different architecture, different fresh water collecting systems, we're trying to develop a new hydroponic system. We trying to do so many things."
This year around 60% of the crops were grown from the seeds and the remainder were grown from seedlings, and Fontanesi said that even the seedlings performed well and showed great adaptability.
Another development for the project is that the team is now looking into the possibility of installing a biosphere overseas, with the U.S. as a strong possibility. A biosphere will be shipped to the country next year to be presented at the OCEANS 2017 show in San Diego.
"We are going to ship one of our biospheres over there so we can show people what we are doing, then we are going to see if we can install that biosphere in the United States or not," he said.
If the project goes ahead, California - where Ocean Reef Group has offices in San Diego - and Florida would be strong contenders for where it would be installed.
"We are looking of course at other destinations, other places where we can run the project and maybe we can compare the results with different kinds of environments and conditions," he said.
"Many people have shown interest in this type of habitat - from the Maldives, Australia, Spain, France, Saudi Arabia etcetera."
As for future plans, Fontanesi said the company was not looking to become a food supplier, but wanted to achieve strong results in terms of plants growth to demonstrate the system's potential.
"We will keep doing research, but we are also able to sell or rent this habitat to whoever wants it, for different purposes like underwater green houses or gardens, underwater laboratories and underwater observatories," he said.
He also highlighted that renting out the biospheres to other companies was a great way to make a return on the huge investment and also opened up new marketing potential.
"So many opportunities are cropping us. It’s good for us to rent out the biospheres in terms of return on the investment, which is massive, but at the same time it could be another possible market in the future," he said.
"Crop-growing is not our primary activity - we are primarily scuba diving. It was fun at the beginning, then it became a serious reality and now it’s a kind of start-up, so we are also thinking about the chance of separating Nemo’s garden from Ocean Reefer Group and trying to create a proper start-up."
Photo: Ocean Reef Group