“As soon as you are beyond the scope of re-supply from earth, you must have a regenerative biological system. There’s no getting around it,” says Mike Dixon Director of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF), at the University of Guelph. Plant growth, food production, air revitalization, water and material recycling, and management of the atmosphere are all major challenges in a closed environment such as a spaceship or a biodome on a distant planet.
The world’s leading space authorities have turned to Dixon and the facility’s Space and Advanced Life Support Agriculture (SALSA) to solve some seemingly insurmountable problems related to sustaining human life on extended space missions.
Dixon sits on the International Advanced Life Support Working Group, populated by high-level, space-agency personnel from Russia, Japan, Canada, the European Space Agency, and NASA. Dixon is unique as the only non-space agency representative. His inclusion in the group recognizes the fact that SALSA is making an important contribution to space-based advanced life support. “We have quickly become the sole source for a lot of the technology required for growing plants,” says Dixon. “In the area of biological life support, we are the food production and atmosphere revitalization arm of the international community.”
With support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Dixon and his team recently put the finishing touches on a major expansion of the CESRF. That expansion resulted in a series of chambers that can be used in experiments that involve growing plants and food. The experiments can be conducted under different atmospheric pressures and controlled environmental conditions—to simulate environments in space.
Pressures can be adjusted, and air quality monitored in real time and adjusted accordingly. The multiple chambers also substantially increase the reliability of experiments because of the ability to rapidly repeat and duplicate tests to substantiate results. Recent experiments have seen tomatoes and green peppers grown under different pressures.
“The facility, with its unique variable pressure systems, is the main focus,” says Dixon. “Those chambers represent one of the single largest questions on NASA’s mind right now. The variable pressure issue, the leakage, and the engineering requirements to achieve that are the main objectives associated with our collaboration with NASA.”
Raymond Wheeler, the head of NASA’s Biological Sciences Office at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida , says the CESRF has “very unique capabilities” for pressure experiments. “I don’t know of any other group in the world with these specialized hypobaric chambers,” he says. To make sure the systems work in space, Wheeler says the appropriate testing has to be done on Earth.
It will be a long time before astronauts will be able to grow food based on the research taking place at the university’s SALSA. But Canadians and other terrestrial denizens are already benefiting from the research findings.
“Our entire program is designed not on a primary objective of going to Mars, but on the objective of terrestrial technology spin-offs and applications,” says Mike Dixon. “There is no such thing as garbage when you go into space—you have to recycle everything. So you can imagine the spin-offs that might be possible when we transfer this recycling technology here on earth.”
One of the most impressive offshoots is the commercialization of atmosphere management technology from the program. Graduate students have formed a company called Air Quality Solutions, which completed the largest biological air filter in the world at the Guelph-Humber Building in Toronto. The facility houses 1,000 students and staff involved in the academic collaboration between the University of Guelph and Humber College.
“When you walk into the central atrium, there is a four-storey-high biological filter which consists of a water wall with plants growing all over it,” says Dixon. “The air in the building is pulled through it and the various plants. The air then gets recycled. It’s a permanent, self-sustaining biological ecosystem that cleans the indoor air.”
The recent deaths from contaminated water in Walkerton, Ontario, sparked the Nutrient Management Act, which requires significant environmental accountability for the agrifood sector. Research at CESRF is leading to the development of real-time sensors to analyze liquids for immediate remediation of leakage and contamination, as opposed to waiting days or weeks for test results from a laboratory.
Dixon says other spin-offs include air-quality remediation for animal holding facilities such as pig barns and chicken coops, including one discovery that can consume ammonia faster than chickens can produce it.
The CESRF and SALSA are partners with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) program on life support called MELiSSA (Micro-ecological Life Support System Alternative. MELiSSA is the ESA’s contribution to international biological life-support activities. Canada is an associate member of the ESA.
Another key collaboration is with NASA and the University of Florida. This has resulted in a study of environmental stress resulting from atmospheric pressure changes in the context of a genomics experiment. The University of Florida team has discovered some pressure-sensitive genes in a “guinea pig” plant called Arabidopsis. The work was featured in a cover story for Plant Physiology magazine in January 2004.
There are also a number of private-sector partners involved in the research including:
Priva—The CESRF is developing and testing advanced greenhouse sensors with Priva, a Dutch company with Canadian operations.
Air Quality Solutions—Founded by graduate student Alan Darlington, Air Quality Solutions has commercialized a number of pieces of technology from the CESRF. The company’s largest project to date was the living biofilter wall at the Guelph Humber Building.
Purification Research Technologies Inc.—This partner is working with the CESRF to devise applications of their ozone-producing technology. SALSA is looking at a domestic application that would have an aqueous ozone generator in the kitchen, where a meal preparer cooking a chicken, would disinfect not only the carcass of the chicken and vegetables that are about to be prepared, but the cutting board for salmonella.