A Guelph ecosystem excites NASA


In the bowels of a building complex at the University of Guelph there is a large, hermetically sealed box, about as big as a half-sized railway container, made of inert materials — stainless steel, teflon, and glass. Out of this may come knowledge that will make possible a space station on the moon, or on Mars.

Inside the box, soybeans are growing in an experiment to determine how to cultivate plants in a sealed environment where absolutely everything is recycled. The main beneficiary of the experiment will be Canada’s greenhouse producers.

However, the experiment is also important to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has long range plans to build a planetary space station, and, in a significant industrial spinoff, to companies that are concerned with indoor air quality in everything from transport vehicles to office buildings.

The problem with recycling is that there are a lot of variables and they keep changing. The trick, says Michael Dixon, biophysicist and associate professor of horticultural science, is to find the recipe that meets the needs of the plants, compensates for the changing variables, and doesn’t add anything to the mix. The mix includes nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, sulphur, «  a whole host of micro-nutrients,’’ humidity, temperature, carbon dioxide, light, and water.

Canada leads the world in controlling lighting and manipulating temperature and humidity, says Dixon, and the Dutch lead in nutrient recycling — although Canada is among the best in that field too.

« We’re about as far north as you can go with commercial greenhouses,’’ he adds. « In order to make money out of a greenhouse here, you have to optimize everything.’’  Canadian greenhouses produce cut flowers, bedding plants, potted plants, and food crops consisting mainly of tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, and cucumbers. With annual revenues of more than $1.2-billion a year, they have been highly successful.

They can compete against southern field growers because transportation costs are lower, quality is high, production is uniform, and desirable characteristics can be added. For instance, flowers can be made to last longer after being cut by training them to withstand drought and stress.

The market for cut flowers and plants has enormous opportunities for growth, Dixon says. Only 5 to 6 per cent of North American households regularly buy them. « Compare that with Holland where the figure is 90 per cent.’’

On the day I was speaking with him, he was getting ready to leave for the Kennedy Space Centre, where he is collaborating with NASA scientists. They are following his work because in a planetary space station, plants will be essential not only for food, but for maintaining air quality and life support.

They are equally interested in an experiment, spun off from Dixon’s work, that uses plants to cleanse air in the Canada Life Assurance building at Simcoe and Queen Streets in downtown Toronto. The plants form a « breathing wall’’ that is a tropical ecosystem in miniature, built into a conference room as its sole air conditioning system. The experiment has made parts of corporate Canada increasingly interested in what Dixon is doing.

The ecosystem arrangement was designed by Wolfgang Amelung of Genetron Systems Inc. The research team, led by Dixon, is analyzing its performance. The breathing wall is working so successfully that Canada Life hopes to hook it into the air circulation system for the first three floors of the building.

In spinoff applications, says Dixon, what gets transferred is not gadgets but management skills. That, he adds, means software, knowledge, and philosophy … « especially philosophy.’’

« What we’re doing with the breathing wall is not traditional engineering and so a lot of the reaction we get is that it’s a kind of off-the-wall activity.’’ People are used to dealing with the concrete and the tangible « and we need to come back to the complex and the intangible.

« Among other things, that means we have to change the rules of our coexistence with other organisms on the planet. We have to search more for harmony and less for dominance.

« Once people have made that shift, we can co-operate with the rest of nature instead of fighting it and the possibilities are endless.’’ The first step, he added, is to accept that we are part of nature, and that what we do to « nature,’’ we do to ourselves.

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