Aeroponics in Antarctica

April 24, 2018

It may sound far-fetched, but earlier this month scientists at the German Aerospace Centre’s (DLR) Neumayer III polar station in Antarctica just harvested their first crop of vegetables, without soil, sun or pesticides, using vertical farming and aeroponics techniques.

Neumayer III Polar Station - credit: DLR

With global food production being one of the key societal challenges of the 21st century, researchers at Neumayer III are testing how best to grow plants in hostile conditions, with the intention of using this knowledge to supply astronauts with fresh produce in space, as well as growing plants on other planets (such as Mars and beyond), as part of their “Eden International Space Station” project.

Building the greenhouse platform - Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

The Eden greenhouse arrived in Antarctica in January this year and looks nothing like a conventional greenhouse.  It’s constructed from a repurposed, windowless shipping container and accessed through an airlock, as it’s fed by its own closed air circulation.  Plants are grown without sunlight and soil, while the leaves are sprayed with a fine mist of nutrients and their leaves illuminated by computer controlled blue, red and white LED lights to provide the specific conditions needed for each plant to thrive effectively.  The air around them is enriched with carbon dioxide and filtered to clean it of any fungal spores and bacteria.  The closed circuit of this vertical farming system makes it possible to recapture all the water that the plants release into the air and reuse it.

Eden Greenhouse Controls - Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

After sowing the seeds in mid-February, researchers experienced a few minor systems failures and the strongest storm they’ve seen in more than a year, yet they’ve still managed to harvest 18 cucumbers, 708 radishes and about 3.6 kilograms of salad greens from the greenhouse, while temperatures outside plummeted to below -20 degrees Celsius.

Harvest

Researchers living in Antarctica have, until now, been dependent on planes to deliver fresh food, whilst most of their diet is made up of dried or frozen foods.  Provisions are sent only once a year (around December) with about 60 tons of food and drink.  Fruits and vegetables are frozen to last through winter.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are sent by air freight from South Africa every three to four weeks in summer only (November to February).

The ability to grow their own fresh greens will have a significant impact on food and health concerns (supplying nutrients such as vitamin C and other antioxidants that are lost when dried or frozen) not only for them, but also on NASA’s plans to travel to Mars.

NASA estimates that the crew of just four members traveling to Mars and back on a three-year mission would require more than 10,886 kilograms of food.  Imagine the impact of being able to start their own aeroponic garden when they landed?

The DLR says that the crew of Neumayer III are planning to harvest 4 to 5 kilograms of fruits and vegetables by next month to prove that it’s possible to grow a wider range of vegetables in space than those currently being cultivated on the International Space Station (at present, only salad greens).

Inside Eden greenhouse - Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

So far, the Eden greenhouse has successfully grown radishes, salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and herbs, including basil, parsley, chives and cilantro.  They are still patiently trying to grow strawberries for dessert!

One small seed for man, one giant leaf for mankind!




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