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In Houston a group of architecture students from Rice University attracted the attention of one of the world's largest oil companies. Two years ago those students won the first-ever U.S. Oderbrecht Award for sustainable development. Their winning concept - a radical design of man-made floating islands where oil workers and their families could live for extended periods of time.

These floating hubs would be two square kilometers and serve as a home to as many as 25,000 people. As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, this petro-focused student project is the subject of a new book, "The Petropolis of Tomorrow."

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: So imagine you're in an architecture class at a prestigious private university in Houston and the assignment is to come up with an idea, a project that is so revolutionary that it could be considered an important advance in industrial design. OK. Think about it for a second. Little longer. Got anything?

DR. NEERAJ BHATIA: We started focusing in around Brazil and into the oil industry, and one of the fascinating things with the oil industry in Brazil is that it's all off shore and it's relatively new in terms of the findings.

GOODWYN: Dr. Neeraj Bhatia's and his fourth year Rice architectural students focused on a 600 kilometer area off the coast of Brazil, called the Campos, Santos and the Libra Oil Basins.

BHATIA: We saw this crisis, this logistical crisis that was emerging, as the newer findings were further and further off shore.

GOODWYN: The newer discoveries push the limits of normal helicopter range. That means getting to and from work on the oil platforms is both expensive and a grind. So the Brazilian oil company Petrobras is looking for a new way, a better way for their employees who must work on these platforms.

Alex Yuan is one of the Rice students on the project.

ALEX YUAN: And I think what was interesting was being able to affect their lives, both at the human level - basically how they go about their day - and then in the broader sense, we could change the way that those accumulated lives affected the whole industry.

GOODWYN: Their solution seems right out of an Arthur C. Clarke novel. The class designed three large floating islands which are surrounded by 42 smaller islands. These smaller islands would provide the hubs with, among other things, crops and electricity through solar and wave power. The three main hub islands would be as large as one kilometer-by-two kilometers and would be a mix of residential, office and industrial centers. Up to 25,000 people could call it home.

Weejia Song is another one of the student designers.

WEEJIA SONG: We have a series of islands. There are three types, the hub island which is the largest, considered more like a metropolitan island where it has the densest population. It has apartments for workers and families, it has basic community. It has resources such as schools, office space.

GOODWYN: There'd be a hospital, a commissary, office buildings, a desalination plant. There'd be a beach complete with volleyball and soccer fields, a swimming pool. The platform workers would be transported to and from the island hub by boat. The family-unfriendly life of working two weeks on and two weeks off could be eased. Meat and other commodities would have to be imported by boat but in many ways this off-shore community would be self-sufficient. And the two square kilometers above the water is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath each hub is a mountain of submerged steel including massive ballasts tanks.

Again, Professor Bhatia.

BHATIA: With the balancing techniques, not only can you raise and lower the island by the ratio of air to water, they also have techniques now for digitally sensing wave levels and these things are constantly being calibrated. So the technique of using digital stabilizers - that are constantly re-ballasting the tanks - would be what was employed.

GOODWYN: The three hubs would serve as oil transfer facilities, pumping the oil off shore crude back to the coast through three large pipelines. The hope, by Brazil's Petrobras Oil, is to build and have operational, some kind of floating residential islands in the next five years. Just how much of the Rice student's elaborate concept ultimately might be realized is still unknown. The project is in its early phases on the drawing board.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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