CRA-Carla Ratti Associati

A Beach Umbrella that Uses the Sun’s Energy to Cool You Off

I have a fairly large patio behind my house that is in direct sunlight from about 11:00 in the morning until about 6:00 in the evening. It gets a little toasty during the summer months, and while I have a patio umbrella, the umbrella doesn’t do much more than provide shade. Wouldn’t it be great if when the umbrella was extended, it could do more? Something like provide energy that could be used for a variety of things. Apparently Sammontana, Italy’s leading gelato, and frozen treats brand thought the same thing, so they teamed up with the international design and innovation firm CRA-Carla Ratti Associati to design a beach umbrella that uses solar energy to do just that.

The umbrella features an unfolding photovoltaic array that generates electric power which is then used to do things like charging your device, or run a refrigeration system. Designed in collaboration with the proponent of “transformable design” Chuck Hoberman and inspired by aerospace technologies the umbrella strives to transform how we think about products and multifunctional design. The first prototypes of the beach umbrella will be showcased in the city center of Milan, Italy, from June 12th at BAM-Biblioteca Degli Alberi Milano Park.

The beach umbrella opens like a work of origami or in a similar fashion to the solar systems on NASA spacecraft. At 2.5 meters high (8.2 feet) and a diameter of 3.2 meters (10.5 feet), the foldable photovoltaic panels on top of the umbrella absorb sunlight from the whole hemisphere and convert it into electricity, powering coolers and nebulizers underneath. In particular, for Sammontana, a mini-refrigerator allows them to keep gelato and drinks cool even during the warmest hours of the day. Electric power from either one or multiple umbrellas can be pooled together to power a large ice-cream refrigerator. The modular system is conceived to be scalable, bringing clean energy to larger public areas.

“Can we use the power of the abundant summer sunshine to make our holiday experience more sustainable?” says Carlo Ratti, founder of CRA and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The design concept of this project starts from using the sun to produce electricity to cool the space under the umbrella – and then scale it up to provide power to any beach resort. We are delighted that Sammontana invited us to develop this project, as both our organizations share a strong commitment to environmental values and human wellbeing.”

Since 2016, Sammontana has initiated a process to reduce the environmental impact of its production activities, inspired by the principles put forward in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The program features an assessment and compensation of the CO2eq of the Sammontana products as well as a choice of the most advanced packaging solutions. 

A prototype of the beach umbrella will be exhibited from June 12th to August 8th, 2021 at BAM-Biblioteca Degli Alberi Milano Park, which is an initiative of the Riccardo Catella Foundation. The installation, located in the fashionable Porta Nuova district of Italy’s design capital, creates a lounge area that can be accessed by the public free of charge, as with all the initiatives of the BAM cultural program. The project is showcased both in the stand-alone mode and in an aggregated form – featuring eleven beach umbrellas powering a refrigerator.

The Milanese test will serve as the first step to evaluate how the innovation process might accelerate and potentially be brought to Italy’s 4,970 miles coastline, promoting a more sustainable approach to summer leisure.