Growing crops on deep-space missions begins to move from science fiction to reality
CLEMSON — “Star Trek” characters could instantly summon any food in the galaxy by calling out to their computer, but until a replicator becomes available, real-life space explorers might have to grow their own crops.
They will have some help from Clemson University’s Joshua Summers, who is beginning to lay the groundwork for deep-space farming as part of a NASA-funded study he is doing with the Boston company, Freight Farms.
The company, whose lead engineer is a Clemson alumnus, converts insulated shipping containers into hydroponic farms that grow lettuce, herbs and other leafy greens. Urban farmers have been using the 320-square-foot boxes to provide fresh produce to restaurants year-round.
Summers, a mechanical engineering professor, has assembled a team that will look for ways to make the self-contained farms more efficient so that the technology they harbor can supply fresh produce to explorers in the far reaches and harsh conditions of deep space.
If sending humans beyond the moon still sounds more like science fiction than science, consider this: The $125,000 that Clemson and Freight Farms received was among $49.7 million in awards that NASA distributed as part of an initiative aimed at enabling deep space missions while benefiting the U.S. economy.
“Ultimately, I think we are going back to space,” Summers said. “Humans by nature are explorers. How do we make life good as we go into these deep explorations? We’re trying to answer part of that question.”
The boxes, dubbed the “Leafy Green Machine,” require about 10 gallons of water per day, which is much less than a traditional farm. They have been confirmed to operate in temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees and as high as 120 degrees.
Crops grow hydroponically in a nutrient-rich water solution rather than soil, while strips of LED lights glow with ultraviolet light.
Summers and his team hope to find ways of capturing the heat generated by the LED lights. It could help cool the inside of the farms, and redirecting the heat could generate power for on-board systems. The team will also look into ways of reclaiming and recycling humidity.
The biggest challenge for Summers and his team will be improving upon a product that Freight Farms has already advanced to the point of commercial viability.
“Freight Farms has already developed much of the growing technology, which will serve as a baseline for the project,” Summers said. “When we’re looking at trying to improve efficiency, we’re going to have to look at things that they haven’t even looked at. That’s going to be an uphill battle for us, to find solutions beyond what they’ve already come up with. But at the same time, that’s the fun part.”
John Kelly, who used to be one of Summers’ students, is now the lead engineer for Freight Farms. He approached Summers about the research when the opportunity for the NASA grant came to his attention.
“Clemson University gave me so many opportunities as an undergraduate to prepare me for my engineering career,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to now be able to use those skills to bring research and funding back to the university for the next generation of alums.”
Also involved in the research is John Wagner, a Clemson mechanical engineering professor who has expertise in energy and thermal system controls.
It will be years before the technology blasts off into space, but it could have more immediate terrestrial applications, such as for disaster relief, on military bases, in mining and offshore industries and for those living in remote, harsh climates.
This isn’t Summers’ first space-related research. Michelin once sponsored a $6,000 research project for Summers to explore ways of making the Tweel out of materials other than rubber and polyurethane.
The research led to an all-metal Tweel that could be used on the moon and spun off a line of other projects that account for more than $3 million in public and private funding and has involved more than 20 graduate students and five faculty members.
“The same thing could happen with this NASA grant,” said Summers, who is the IDEaS professor and graduate program coordinator in mechanical engineering.
“This collaborative research brings together government, industry and academia and has high potential to be translated into real-world application,” Figliola said. “The work that Dr. Summers and his team are doing will encourage students to literally reach for the stars.”
NASA said it received 1,278 proposals in response to its 2016 solicitation for its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.
From those, NASA selected 341 SBIR and 58 STTR Phase I proposals for contract negotiations. The Clemson-Freight Farms research was among the STTR proposals.