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Precision Growing on Mars provides useful lessons for horticulture on Earth

Grodan substrate supports space mission

If everything goes according to plan, the first manned mission to Mars will take place in 2035. The journey will take the 'martianauts' about two and a half years. Taking along food supplies for the entire journey is impossible; that would amount to around fifteen hundred kilograms per person. The solution lies in growing their own food. What that requires is a light and compact growth medium which yields maximum
results with the use of minimal resources. Precisely the characteristics of the stone wool substrate developed by Grodan for the horticultural sector.

Wheat growing on Grodan substrates inside a hyperbaric chamber

Conditions on Mars differ completely to those on Earth. For example, the atmosphere there is very thin. Plants cannot survive in such an environment. In order to be able to grow their own vegetables on the planet, the martianauts will have to take along greenhouses that have an artificial atmosphere. All the elements required by plants for growth, such as carbon, sunlight, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus are present on Mars, however sometimes in very small quantities.

Plants as the basis

In a research centre at the University of Guelph in Ontario (Canada), studies are being conducted into biological life support systems for space missions to distant destinations such as Mars. Plants form the basis of this kind of
system. Plants are not only exceptionally well suited for the production of food and oxygen- they can also process carbon dioxide and purify water. In the laboratories the scientists are investigating how to grow as many plants as
possible on the smallest possible surface area and how to recycle water and other nutrients in a closed system. Hypobaric chambers are used to find the lowest atmospheric pressure in which plants can still flourish. The air pressure on Mars is less than one percent of that on Earth! In the meantime a six metre long, rather bulky and heavy prototype of a tunnel shaped greenhouse has been constructed for further testing. The ultimate aim is to be able to produce a considerably lighter weight greenhouse that can rolled up like a mat and carried under the arm.

Grodan substrates used in research

Grodan plays a significant role in this research project. The plants being studied in Canada are grown on stone wool substrate from Grodan. In a certified process, Grodan processes a natural solidified lava, basalt, to create a stone wool-based substrate for horticulture and floriculture. One cubic metre of basalt produces fifty cubic metres of stone wool. Enough to grow 350,000 kg of tomatoes or 1 million cucumbers! The use of stone wool substrate offers many advantages. With minimum use of water and nutrients maximum yield per square metre can be achieved. Plus the material is lightweight, thus easy to handle. Stone wool is eminently suitable for use in closed cultivation systems, where water is recirculated and reused. These characteristics make it ideal for use on Mars and during the journey there.

Further developing Precision Growing methods

These advanced, recyclable, Grodan substrates have been especially developed for 'Precision Growing'. Precision Growing is the most efficient, effective and sustainable form of growing, whereby minimum input (water, energy, nutrients, space) is used to generate maximum output (yield, quality, production time). And that is precisely what the researchers in Canada are aiming for. This cooperation has plenty of advantages for Grodan. The results generated by this research can be utilised by Grodan to fine-tune the objectives of Precision Growing. This will propel Precision Growing to a higher level, allowing growers even better control of the growing process in their greenhouses and improving their operational results at the same time. That’s how a space mission to Mars can help increase the sustainability of high tech horticulture, which Grodan is extremely happy to contribute towards.

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