Sep 30, 2015
On my list of things to do if I were ever an eccentric billionaire is to have a very special ship built. No, not a space ship ------ other billionaires have that covered. This is a sailing ship, but a ship that's completely self-sustaining, a bio-boat, if you will.
When I was in junior high, I read Heinlein's novel "I Will Fear No Evil." In it, the world's richest person "drops out" of civilization by going to live on a ship. Except the ship wasn't self-sustaining and still had to constantly make port to get supplies. So that got me to wondering if it's possible to build a self-sustaining ship? Now I know it's possible for a ship to spend a long time out at sea because it's well provisioned --- one ship which proved the Arctic icecap circles the Earth did so by deliberately ice-bounding itself for two years. But that's not what I'm talking about.
What I'm talking about is a ship that's capable of generating its own power through renewable sources (not because it's got big fuel tanks), cleaning its own water and growing its own food.
Naturally, this would be a sailing vessel with an engine only as a back-up so locomotion would be supplied by the wind. Any modern ship also uses a lot of power for electronics, lighting and various equipment. Fortunately, all of that has become much more energy efficient in the decades since I read "I Will Fear No Evil." And fortunately, on-site power generation has also improved in those decades. Because all the ship's equipment (unless it's an emergency) would be powered by solar panels, wind turbines and (if they can figure out how to make it work) hydroelectric because with all those waves and water rushing by, there ought to be some way to capture that energy. Given that there's usually a temperature difference between the air and the water, maybe that could be used as a heat pump like geothermal heat/cooling systems on land. So all those would be the source of self-sustaining power generation for the ship.
One thing there's plenty of at sea is water. And modern ships have the ability to desalinate it through reverse osmosis. But that's not the only challenge here. Water would have to be desalinated to provide fresh water. But something would have to be done with the wastewater. This ship is not going to go around polluting the oceans of the Earth. Besides, feces makes great fertilizer, even human waste has been used as fertilizer, but it's got to be safe as human waste can also carry disease that you don't want on/in your food. If the ship is going to be self-sustaining, then you're not going to throw away something that can be as useful as feces is. So water purification/recycling would be critical and it would be critical to the third element.........
Power and desalinating water are pretty straight-forward. The complex part would be coming up with a system to grow all your own food. In this I was inspired last year from an episode of "Dark Rye" that shows The Garden Pool where a family claims they grow enough food in their old, in-ground swimming pool to feed a family of four. This is done with a fish pond below, chicken coop above and growing plants in between. It's a system that works for them, but the reality is they still buy groceries at the store and trade food with other people who grow their own. This ship's system would have to be entirely self-sustaining. Think about all the ingredients that a recipe has. You'd either have to grow those ingredients, make them or do without. No grocery store to pick up something you're missing.
The fish pond still seems like a good start. Fish breed fast and grow fast. I know it seems odd to be farming fish on a ship in the ocean, but it's not like you can reliably count on being able to catch fish when you want fish for dinner. And the fish would form the basis of an aquaponic farming system which combines aquaculture (growing fish) with hydroponics (growing plants). So start with the fish and then the nutrient-rich fish wastewater is passed to hydroponic section where the plants use the nutrients and clean the water before it returns to the fish. (This would also be part of the system to clean the other wastewater from the ship as well as a use for the manure from the livestock.) The hydroponics would have LED grow lights so the plants are exposed to light for 24 hours a day. (That's how Alaska can grow such spectacular produce --- long hours of daylight.) Hydroponics would provide leafy greens, root vegetables, fruits like strawberries and grains like rice, wheat, oats, etc (because this would be one eccentric billionaire that's not giving up bread, baked goods and pasta, besides you need grain for the livestock). I know that citrus trees have been grown hydroponically, which is good news because citrus is an important flavor for cooking so lemon and orange trees would be a must. But I don't know of spice trees like cinnamon having been grown hydroponically. And speaking of trees, how many cocoa trees would it take to keep me supplied with chocolate because a cocoa tree only produces one to two pounds of dried chocolate seeds in an entire year ---- I go through more chocolate than that.
And chocolate brings up the issue of food processing. Because it's one thing to have the plant; it's another thing to turn that into the final food item. So dried cocoa seeds would have to be turned into chocolate. Sugar beets boiled into molasses and refined into sugar. Grains milled into flour. Wild yeast can be grown onboard ship, but what about other leaveners like baking soda and baking powder which will have to be made?
Besides the fish, I'd want other livestock. Chickens would supply both eggs and meat. Goats are a must for milk, cheese and butter (because I'm also not giving up dairy, besides bread with no dairy -- no way). Do we hand pollinate the plants or could we have a beehive to fertilize them? If you're in the middle of the ocean, it's not like there are local bees to show up and do your fertilizing for you. But would there be enough plants on board to keep a beehive alive and healthy? Bees have their pollen requirements.
It becomes a complicated issue to plan on growing enough plant food to keep a constant, healthy and varied supply for the humans and livestock. Instead of only taking up the space of a backyard swimming pool like in that episode of "Dark Rye," when you're talking about producing all your own food on board a ship, I could imagine it starts taking a lot more space. There might be plants growing in the corridors and anywhere possible.
Then there are other necessities. Any ship I'd build as an eccentric billionaire would have to have a state-of-the-art control room with as much possible backed up by low tech equipment (astrolabe anyone?). This ship is not about challenging the weather. It's got other challenges. This ship would be about getting out of the way of bad weather. There would have to be a very well supplied sick bay that could double as a small-scale chemistry lab. There'd have to be a machine room for repairs. An exercise room is also a must to keep people healthy. Yet, you can't let the ship get too big because a bigger ship means more crew which means more food.
I expect there'd be very little room for sleeping. In fact, I'd picture something like those Japanese capsule hotel rooms, but with much better mattresses (the kind where you can adjust the firmness and position), enough room to sit up and each capsule having its own ventilation/temperature control, soundproofing, variable lighting that can be adjusted for specific tasks, even aroma therapy. (Though as the eccentric billionaire paying for it all has its privileges ---- I'd want a small room for me and the cats.) I don't know how sailors of old did it with most of a ship's crew crowded into one room with only a hammock to sleep in, but modern Westerners have much more high maintenance expectations for their psychological needs. So under prolonged conditions like this it's important for each person to have a space that was absolutely their own --- somewhere they could retreat and be in total control of their mini-domain. Therefore, those would be capsules fitted with every luxury that could be crammed in. There would be satellite internet to keep connected with the rest of the world. But because maritime internet is notoriously slow, the ship would have servers loaded with movies, TV shows, books, music and games (though not multi-player games because that could cause conflict) for people to entertain themselves in their capsules.
There would be a myriad of things to think about. Like toilet paper. Just stocking up on toilet paper is not self-sustaining. Maybe all the toilets would have bidets, so no toilet paper needed. But what about women and periods --- it'd probably be back to cloth for that. And that brings up laundry ---- is there a sustainable method of doing laundry? What about soap for washing us and everything else? Can we make our own?
In many ways, designing a self-sustaining ship would be like planning for space travel because, unlike previous biosphere projects, this is a moving vehicle, hence, a much more confined space. (Though if you wanted an even more similar test to space travel, make it a self-sustaining submarine instead of self-sustaining sailing ship.) But the good thing about doing this on a ship is that you can keep the ship in port for the years it takes to set up the system and work out the kinks and only then set sail when you're finally confident you've got a sustainable system going ----- which includes a group of people that can get along.
Just what would it take to build a ship that could leave port and spend the next two-three years on the open water without getting any supplies from land? If I were ever an eccentric billionaire, that's a question I'd like to answer.
*Yes, I know it's technically a ship, not a boat, but Bio-ship doesn't have the same ring to it.
If you like this piece, you might enjoy "Pond Scum, Civilization's Savior? The Potential of Algae Biofuel to Alter the World's Economy, Environment and Politics."
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