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Aeroponics

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Close-up of lettuce and wheat grown in an aeroponic apparatus, NASA, 1998

Aeroponics is the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil or an aggregate medium (known as geoponics). The word "aeroponic" is derived from the Greek meanings of "aero" (air) and "ponos" (labour). Aeroponic culture differs from both conventional hydroponics and in-vitro (plant tissue culture) growing. Unlike hydroponics, which uses water as a growing medium and essential minerals to sustain plant growth, aeroponics is conducted without a growing medium.[1] Because water is used in aeroponics to transmit nutrients, it is sometimes considered a type of hydroponics.

Contents

Methods

The basic principle of aeroponic growing is to grow plants suspended in a closed or semi-closed environment by spraying the plant's dangling roots and lower stem with an atomized, nutrient-rich water solution.[1] The leaves and crown, often called the "canopy", extend above. The roots of the plant are separated by the plant support structure. Many times closed cell foam is compressed around the lower stem and inserted into an opening in the aeroponic chamber, which decreases labor and expense; for larger plants, trellising is used to suspend the weight of vegetation and fruit.

Ideally, the environment is kept free from pests and disease so that the plants may grow healthier and quicker than plants grown in a medium. However, since most aeroponic environments are not perfectly closed off to the outside, pests and disease may still cause a threat. Controlled environments advance plant development, health, growth, flowering and fruiting for any given plant species and cultivars.

Due to the sensitivity of root systems aeroponics is often combined with conventional hydroponics which is used as an emergency "crop saver" - backup nutrition and water supply - if the aeroponic apparatus fails.

Benefits and drawbacks

Many types of plants can be grown aeroponically

Ecological advantages

Aeroponic growing is considered to be safe and ecologically friendly for producing natural, healthy plants and crops. The main ecological advantages of aeroponics are the conservation of water and energy. When compared to hydroponics, aeroponics offers lower water and energy inputs per square meter of growing area. When used commercially, aeroponics uses one-tenth of the water otherwise necessary to grow the crop[2] but this can be reduced to as little as one-twentieth.

Increased air exposure

Air cultures optimize access to air for successful plant growth. Materials and devices which hold and support the aeroponic grown plants must be devoid of disease or pathogens. A distinction of a true aeroponic culture and apparatus is that it provides plant support features that are monomial. Monomial contact between a plant and support structure allows for 100% of the plant to be entirely in air. Long-term aeroponic cultivation requires the root systems to be free of constraints surrounding the stem and root systems. Physical contact is minimized so that it does not hinder natural growth and root expansion or access to pure water, air exchange and disease-free conditions.

Close-up of the first patented aeroponic plant support structure (1983). Its unrestricted support of the plant allows for normal growth in the air/moisture environment - still in use today

[1]

Benefits of oxygen in the root zone

Oxygen in the rhizosphere (root zone) is necessary for healthy plant growth. As aeroponics is conducted in air combined with micro-droplets of water, almost any plant can grow to maturity in air with a plentiful supply of oxygen, water and nutrients.

Some growers favor aeroponic systems over other methods of hydroponics because the increased aeration of nutrient solution delivers more oxygen to plant roots, stimulating growth and helping to prevent pathogen formation.[1]

Clean air supplies oxygen which is an excellent purifier for plants and the aeroponic environment. For natural growth to occur the plant must have unrestricted access to air. Plants must be allowed to grow in a natural manner for successful physiological development. The more confining the plant support becomes, the greater incidence of increasing disease pressure of the plant and the aeroponic system.[1]

Some researchers have used aeroponics to study the effects of root zone gas composition on plant performance. Soffer and Burger [Soffer et al., 1988] studied the effects of dissolved oxygen concentrations on the formation of adventitious roots in what they termed “aero-hydroponics.” They utilized a 3-tier hydro and aero system, in which three separate zones were formed within the root area. The ends of the roots were submerged in the nutrient reservoir, while the middle of the root section received nutrient mist and the upper portion was above the mist. Their results showed that dissolved O2 is essential to root formation, but went on to show that for the three O2 concentrations tested, the number of roots and root length were always greater in the central misted section than either the submersed section or the un-misted section. Even at the lowest concentration, the misted section rooted successfully.[1]

Other benefits of air (CO2)

Plants in a true aeroponic apparatus have 100% access to the CO2 concentrations ranging from 450 ppm to 780 ppm for photosynthesis. At one mile (1.6 km) above sea level the CO2 concentration in the air is 450 ppm during daylight. At night the CO2 level will rise to 780 ppm. Lower elevations will have higher levels. In any case, the air culture apparatus offers ability for plants to have full access to all the available CO2 in the air for photosynthesis.

Growing under lights during the evening allows aeroponics to benefit from the natural occurrence.[1]

Disease-free cultivation

Aeroponics can limit disease transmission since plant-to-plant contact is reduced and each spray pulse can be sterile. In the case of soil, aggregate, or other media, disease can spread throughout the growth media, infecting many plants. In most greenhouses these solid media require sterilization after each crop and, in many cases, they are simply discarded and replaced with fresh, sterile media.[1]

A distinct advantage of aeroponic technology is that if a particular plant does become diseased, it can be quickly removed from the plant support structure without disrupting or infecting the other plants.

Basil grown from seed in an aeroponic system located inside a modern greenhouse was first achieved 1986

Due to the disease-free environment that is unique to aeroponics, many plants can grow at higher density (plants per sq meter) when compared to more traditional forms of cultivation (hydroponics, soil and NFT). Commercial aeroponic systems incorporate hardware features that accommodate the crops expanding root systems.

Researcher du Toit, L.J., H.W. Kirby and W.L. Pedersen (1997). “Evaluation of an Aeroponics System to Screen Maize Genotypes for Resistance to Fusarium graminearum Seedling Blight.” These researchers describe aeroponics as a "valuable, simple, and rapid method for preliminary screening of genotypes for resistance to specific seedling blight or root rot.” [3]

The isolating nature of the aeroponic system allowed them to avoid the complications encountered when studying these infections in soil culture.

Water and nutrient hydro-atomization

Aeroponic equipment involves the use of sprayers, misters, foggers, or other devices to create a fine mist of solution to deliver nutrients to plant roots. Aeroponic systems are normally closed-looped systems providing macro and micro-environments suitable to sustain a reliable, constant air culture. Numerous inventions have been developed to facilitate aeroponic spraying and misting.

Aeroponic hydro-atomized water/nutrient spray, 1996

The key to root development in an aeroponic environment is the size of the water droplet. In commercial applications, a hydro-atomizing spray is employed to cover large areas of roots utilizing air pressure misting.

A variation of the mist technique employs the use of ultrasonic nebulizers or foggers to mist nutrient solutions in low-pressure aeroponic devices.

Water droplet size is crucial for sustaining aeroponic growth. Too large a water droplet means less oxygen is available to the root system. Too fine a water droplet, such as those generated by the ultrasonic mister, produce excessive root hair without developing a lateral root system for sustained growth in an aeroponic system.[1]

Mineralization of the ultrasonic transducers requires maintenance and potential for component failure. This is also a shortcoming of metal spray jets and misters. Restricted access to the water causes the plant to lose turgidity and wilt.

Advanced materials

NASA has funded research and development of new advanced materials to improve aeroponic reliability and maintenance reduction. It also has determined that high pressure hydro-atomized mist of 5-50 micrometres micro-droplets is necessary for long-term aeroponic growing.

For long-term growing, the mist system must have significant pressure to force the mist into the dense root system(s). Repeatability is the key to aeroponics and includes the hydro-atomized droplet size. Degradation of the spray due to mineralization of mist heads inhibits the delivery of the water nutrient solution, leading to an environmental imbalance in the air culture environment.

Special low-mass polymer materials were developed and are used to eliminate mineralization in next generation hydro-atomizing misting and spray jets.

Nutrient uptake

The discrete nature of interval and duration aeroponics allows the measurement of nutrient uptake over time under varying conditions. Barak et al. used an aeroponic system for non-destructive measurement of water and ion uptake rates for cranberries (Barak, Smith et al. 1996).[4]

Close-up of roots grown from wheat seed using aeroponics, 1998

In their study, these researchers found that by measuring the concentrations and volumes of input and efflux solutions, they could accurately calculate the nutrient uptake rate (which was verified by comparing the results with N-isotope measurements). After verification of their analytical method, Barak et al. went on to generate additional data specific to the cranberry, such as diurnal variation in nutrient uptake, correlation between ammonium uptake and proton efflux, and the relationship between ion concentration and uptake. Work such as this not only shows the promise of aeroponics as a research tool for nutrient uptake, but also opens up possibilities for the monitoring of plant health and optimization of crops grown in closed environments.[5]

As a research tool

Soon after its development, aeroponics took hold as a valuable research tool. Aeroponics offered researchers a noninvasive way to examine roots under development. This new technology also allowed researchers a larger number and a wider range of experimental parameters to use in their work.[6]

The ability to precisely control the root zone moisture levels and the amount of water delivered makes aeroponics ideally suited for the study of water stress. K. Hubick evaluated aeroponics as a means to produce consistent, minimally water-stressed plants for use in drought or flood physiology experiments.[7]

Aeroponics is the ideal tool for the study of root morphology. The absence of aggregates offers researchers easy access to the entire, intact root structure without the damage that can be caused by removal of roots from soils or aggregates. It’s been noted that aeroponics produces more normal root systems than hydroponics.[8]

Terminology

Aeroponic growing refers to plants grown in an air culture that can develop and grow in a normal and natural manner.[1]

Aeroponic growth refers to growth achieved in an air culture.

Aeroponic system refers to hardware and system components assembled to sustain plants in an air culture.

Aeroponic greenhouse refers to a climate controlled glass or plastic structure with equipment to grow plants in air/mist environment.

Aeroponic conditions refers to air culture environmental parameters for sustaining plant growth for a plant species.

Aeroponic roots refers to a root system grown in an air culture.

Types of aeroponics

Low-pressure units

In most low-pressure aeroponic gardens, the plant roots are suspended above a reservoir of nutrient solution or inside a channel connected to a reservoir. A low-pressure pump delivers nutrient solution via jets or by ultrasonic transducers, which then drips or drains back into the reservoir. As plants grow to maturity in these units they tend to suffer from dry sections of the root systems, which prevent adequate nutrient uptake. These units, because of cost, lack features to purify the nutrient solution, and adequately remove incontinuities, debris, and unwanted pathogens. Such units are usually suitable for bench top growing and demonstrating the principles of aeroponics.

High-pressure devices

High-pressure aeroponic techniques, where the mist is generated by high-pressure pump(s), are typically used in the cultivation of high value crops and plant specimens that can offset the high setup costs associated with this method of horticulture.

High-pressure aeroponics systems include technologies for air and water purification, nutrient sterilization, low-mass polymers and pressurized nutrient delivery systems.

Commercial systems

Commercial aeroponic systems comprise high-pressure device hardware and biological systems. The biological systems matrix includes enhancements for extended plant life and crop maturation.

Biological subsystems and hardware components include effluent controls systems, disease prevention, pathogen resistance features, precision timing and nutrient solution pressurization, heating and cooling sensors, thermal control of solutions, efficient photon-flux light arrays, spectrum filtration spanning, fail-safe sensors and protection, reduced maintenance & labor saving features, and ergonomics and long-term reliability features.

Commercial aeroponic systems, like the high-pressure devices, are used for the cultivation of high value crops where multiple crop rotations are achieved on an ongoing commercial basis 24/7.

Advanced commercial systems include data gathering, monitoring, analytical feedback and Internet connections to various subsystems.[9]

History

In nature, in tropical climates orchids develop and grow freely in trees.[6]

It was W. Carter in 1942 who first researched air culture growing and described a method of growing plants in water vapor to facilitate examination of roots.[10] As of 2006, aeroponics is used in agriculture around the globe.[11]

In 1944, L.J. Klotz was the first to discover vapor misted citrus plants in a facilitated research of his studies of diseases of citrus and avocado roots. In 1952, G.F. Trowel grew apple trees in a spray culture.[6]

It was F. W. Went in 1957 who first coined the air-growing process as “aeroponics”, growing coffee plants and tomatoes with air-suspended roots and applying a nutrient mist to the root section.[6]

Genesis Machine, 1983

GTi’s Genesis Rooting System, 1983

The first commercially available aeroponic apparatus was manufactured and marketed by GTi in 1983. It was known then as the Genesis Machine - taken from the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The Genesis Machine was marketed as the "Genesis Rooting System".

GTi's device incorporated an open-loop water driven apparatus, controlled by a microchip, and delivered a high pressure, hydro-atomized nutrient spray inside an aeroponic chamber.

At the time, the achievement was revolutionary in terms of a developing (artificial air culture) technology. The Genesis Machine simply connected to a water faucet and an electrical outlet.[12]

Aeroponic propagation (cloning)

GTi's apparatus cut-away of vegetative cutting propagated aeroponically, achieved 1983

Aeroponic culturing revolutionized cloning (propagation from cutting) of plants. Firstly, aeroponics allowed the whole process to be carried out in a single, automated unit. Numerous plants which were previously considered difficult, or impossible, to propagate from cuttings could now be replicated simply from a single stem cutting. This was a major boon to green houses attempting to propagate delicate hardwoods or cacti – plants normally propagated by seed due to the likeliness of bacterial infection in cuttings.

Aeroponics has now largely surpassed hydroponics and tissue culture as means for sterile propagation of plant species. With the Genesis Machine, or other comparable aeroponics setup, any grower could clone plants. Due to the automation of most parts of the process, plants could be cloned and grown by the hundreds or even thousands. In short, cloning became easier because the aeroponic apparatus initiated faster and cleaner root development through a sterile, nutrient rich, highly oxygenated, and moist environment (Hughes, 1983).[1]

Air-rooted transplants

Aeroponics significantly advanced tissue culture technology. It cloned plants in less time and reduced numerous labor steps associated with tissue culture techniques. Aeroponics could eliminate stage I and stage II plantings into soil (the bane of all tissue culture growers).

Cloned aeroponics transplanted directly into soil – its air roots made it all possible (1983)

Tissue culture plants must be planted in a sterile media (stage-I) and expanded out for eventual transfer into sterile soil (stage-II). After they are strong enough they are transplanted directly to field soil. Besides being labor intensive, the entire process of tissue culture is prone to disease, infection, and failure.

With the use of aeroponics, growers cloned and transplanted air-rooted plants directly into field soil. Aeroponic roots were not susceptible to wilting and leaf loss, or loss due to transplant shock (something hydroponics can never overcome). Because of their healthiness, air-rooted plants were less likely to be infected with pathogens.[1]

The efforts by GTi ushered in a new era of artificial life support for plants capable of growing naturally without the use of soil or hydroponics. GTi received a patent for an all-plastic aeroponic method and apparatus, controlled by a microprocessor in 1985.

Aeroponics became known as a time and cost saver. The economic factors of aeroponic’s contributions to agriculture were taking shape.

Genesis Growing System, 1985

GTi's Aeroponic Growing System greenhouse facility, 1985

By 1985, GTi introduced second generation aeroponics hardware, known as the "Genesis Growing System". This second generation aeroponic apparatus was a closed-loop system. It utilized recycled effluent precisely controlled by a microprocessor. Aeroponics graduated to the capability of supporting seed germination, thus making GTi's the world's first plant and harvest aeroponic system.

Many of these open-loop unit and closed-loop aeroponic systems are still in operation today.

Commercialization

Aeroponics eventually left the laboratories and entered into the commercial cultivation arena. In 1966, commercial aeroponic pioneer, B. Briggs, succeeded in inducing roots on hardwood cuttings by air-rooting. Briggs discovered that air-rooted cuttings were tougher and more hardened than those formed in soil and concluded that the basic principle of air-rooting is sound. He discovered air-rooted trees could be transplanted to soil without suffering from transplant shock or setback to normal growth. Transplant shock is normally observed in hydroponic transplants.[13]

In Israel in 1982, L. Nir, developed a patent for an aeroponic apparatus using comprised low pressure air to deliver a nutrient solution to suspended plants, held by styrofoam, inside large metal containers.[14]

In the Summer of 1976 a British researcher - John Prewer - carried out a series of aeroponic experiments near Newport, Isle of Wight, U.K. in which lettuces (variety Tom Thumb) were grown from seed to maturity in 22 days in polyethylene film tubes made rigid by pressurized air supplied by ventilating fans. The equipment used to convert the water/nutrient into fog droplets was supplied by Mee Industries of California.[15] In 1977 in association with John Prewer a commercial grower on the Isle of Wight - Kings Nurseries - used a different design of aeroponics system using rigid tunnels (similar in height and cross section to a gym vaulting horse) the sides and top of which were made of heavy duty black polyethylene film stretched over timber frames. The tunnels were periodically automatically filled with nutrient-containing water fog. The polyethylene film was perforated with holes in which young strawberry plants were inserted. The plants flourished and produced a heavy crop of strawberries which were picked by the nursery's customers. The system proved particularly popular with elderly customers who appreciated the cleanliness, quality and flavor of the strawberries, and the fact they did not have to stoop when picking the fruit.

In 1983, R. Stoner filed a patent for the first microprocessor interface to deliver tap water and nutrients into an enclosed aeroponic chamber made of plastic. Stoner has gone on to develop numerous companies researching and advancing aeroponic hardware, interfaces, biocontrols and components for commercial aeroponic crop production.[6]

In 1985, Stoner's company, GTi, was the first company to manufacture, market and apply large scale closed-loop aeroponic systems into greenhouses for commercial crop production.

The first commercial aeroponic greenhouse for aeroponic food production - 1986

[16]

In the 90s GHE or General Hydroponics [Europe] thought to try and introduce aeroponics to the hobby hydroponics market and finally came to the Aerogarden system. However, this could not be classed as 'true' aeroponics because the Aerogarden produced tiny droplets of solution rather than a fine mist of solution; the fine mist was meant to reproduce true amazon rain. In any case, a product was introduced to the market and the grower could broadly claim to be growing their hydroponic produce aeroponically. A demand for aeroponic growing in the hobby market had been established and moreover it was thought of as the ultimate hydroponic growing technique. The difference between true aeroponic mist growing and aeroponic droplet growing had become very blurred in the eyes of many people. At the end of the nineties and UK firm, Nutriculture, was encouraged enough by industry talk to trial true aeroponic growing; although these showed comparable and even positive results opposite more traditional growing techniques such as NFT and Ebb & Flood there were drawbacks namely cost and maintenece. To accomplish a true mist aeroponics an enormous specialist pump had to be used and this had, in addition, scalability problems. Droplet-aeroponics was easier to make and as it produced comparable results to mist-aeropnics its attractiveness could not be denied and forethwith Nutriculture began development of a scalable, easy to use droplet-aeroponic system. Through trials they found that areoponics was ideal for plant propagation; plants could be propagated without medium and could even be grown-on. In the end, Nutriculture acknowledged that better results could be achieved if the plant was propagated in their branded X-stream aeroponic propagator and moved on to a specially designed droplet-aeroponic growing system - the Amazon.

Aeroponically grown food

In 1986 Stoner was the first person ever to market fresh aeroponically grown food to a national grocery chain. He was interviewed on NPR and discussed the importance of the water conservation features of aeroponics for both modern agriculture and space.[11]

Stoner is considered the father of commercial aeroponics. Stoner's aeroponic systems are in major developed countries around the world. His aeroponic designs, technology and equipment are widely used at leading agricultural universities worldwide and by commercial growers.[1]

Aeroponics in space

Space plants

Plants were first taken into Earth's orbit in 1960 on two separate missions, Sputnik 4 and [17]

NASA life support GAP technology with untreated beans (left tube) and biocontrol treated beans (right tube) returned from the Mir space station aboard the space shuttle – September 1997

On the former mission, wheat, pea, maize, spring onion, and Nigella damascena seeds were carried into space, and on the latter mission Chlorella pyrenoidosa cells were brought into orbit.[11][18]

Plant experiments were later performed on a variety of Bangladesh, China, and joint Soviet-American missions, including [11]

Subsequent research went on to investigate the effect of low gravity on plants at the organismic, cellular, and subcellular levels. At the organismic level, for example, a variety of species, including pine, oat, mung bean, lettuce, cress, and Arabidopsis thaliana, showed decreased seedling, root, and shoot growth in low gravity, whereas lettuce grown on Cosmos showed the opposite effect of growth in space (Halstead and Scott 1990). Mineral uptake seems also to be affected in plants grown in space. For example, peas grown in space exhibited increased levels of phosphorus and potassium and decreased levels of the divalent cations calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and iron (Halstead and Scott 1990).[19]

Biocontrols in space

In 1996, NASA sponsored Stoner’s research for a natural liquid biocontrol, known then as ODC (organic disease control), that activates plants to grow without the need for pesticides as a means to control pathogens in a closed-loop culture system. ODC is derived from natural aquatic materials.[20]

By 1997, Stoner’s biocontrol experiments were conducted by NASA. BioServe Space Technologies’s GAP technology (miniature growth chambers) delivered the ODC solution unto bean seeds. Triplicate ODC experiments were conducted in GAP’s flown to the MIR by the space shuttle; at the Kennedy Space Center; and at Colorado State University (J. Linden). All GAPS were housed in total darkness to eliminate light as an experiment variable. The NASA experiment was to study only the benefits of the biocontrol.[21]

NASA's experiments aboard the MIR space station and shuttle confirmed that ODC elicited increased germination rate, better sprouting, increased growth and natural plant disease mechanisms when applied to beans in an enclosed environment. ODC is now a standard for pesticide-free aeroponic growing and organic farming. Soil and hydroponics growers can benefit by incorporating ODC into their planting techniques. ODC meets USDA NOP standards for organic farms.[22]

Aeroponics for space and Earth

In 1998, Stoner received NASA funding to develop a high performance aeroponic system for earth and space. Stoner demonstrated that a dry bio-mass of lettuce can be significantly increased with aeroponics. NASA utilized numerous aeroponic advancements developed by Stoner.

Abstract: The purpose of the research conducted was to identify and demonstrate technologies for high-performance plant growth in a variety of gravitational environments. A low-gravity environment, for example, poses the problems of effectively bringing water and other nutrients to the plants and effecting recovery of effluents. Food production in the low-gravity environment of space provides further challenges, such as minimization of water use, water handling, and system weight. Food production on planetary bodies such as the Moon or Mars also requires dealing with a hypogravity environment. Because of the impacts to fluid dynamics in these various gravity environments, the nutrient delivery system has been a major focus in plant growth system optimization.

NASA aeroponic lettuce seed germination- Day 30

There are a number of methods currently utilized (both in low gravity and on Earth) to deliver nutrients to plants. Substrate dependent methods include traditional soil cultivation, zeoponics, agar, and nutrient-loaded ion exchange resins. In addition to substrate dependent cultivation, many methods using no soil have been developed such as nutrient film technique, ebb and flow, aeroponics, and many other variants. Many hydroponic systems can provide high plant performance but nutrient solution throughput is high, necessitating large water volumes and substantial recycling of solutions, and the control of the solution in hypogravity conditions is difficult at best.

Aeroponics, with its use of a hydro-atomized spray to deliver nutrients, minimizes water use, increases oxygenation of roots, and offers excellent plant growth, while at the same time approaching or bettering the low nutrient solution throughput of other systems developed to operate in low gravity. Aeroponics’ elimination of substrates and the need for large nutrient stockpiles reduces the amount of waste materials to be processed by other life support systems. Furthermore, the absence of substrates simplifies planting and harvesting (providing opportunities for automation), decreases the volume and weight of expendable materials, and eliminates a pathway for pathogen transmission. These many advantages combined with the results of this research that prove the viability of aeroponics in microgravity makes aeroponics a logical choice for efficient food production in space.[1]

NASA inflatable aeroponics

NASA low-mass Inflatable Aeroponics System (AIS) - achieved 1999

In 1999, Stoner, funded by NASA, developed an inflatable low-mass aeroponic system (AIS) for space and earth for high performance food production.

Abstract: Aeroponics International’s (AI’s) innovation is a self-contained, self-supporting, inflatable aeroponic crop production unit with integral environmental systems for the control and delivery of a nutrient/mist to the roots. This inflatable aeroponic system addresses the needs of subtopic 08.03 Spacecraft Life Support Infrastructure and, in particular, water and nutrient delivery systems technologies for food production. The inflatable nature of our innovation makes it lightweight, allowing it to be deflated so it takes up less volume during transportation and storage. It improves on AI’s current aeroponic system design that uses rigid structures, which use more expensive materials, manufacture processes, and transportation. As a stationary aeroponic system, these existing high-mass units perform very well, but transporting and storing them can be problematic.[16]

On Earth, these problems may hinder the economic feasibility of aeroponics for commercial growers. However, such problems become insurmountable obstacles for using these systems on long-duration space missions because of the high cost of payload volume and mass during launch and transit.[16]

The NASA efforts lead to developments of numerous advanced materials for aeroponics for earth and space.[16]

Mission to Mars

NASA's long range plans indicate that a human visit to Mars will need to utilize inflatable structures to house the spaceship crew on the Mars surface. Planning is under way to incorporate inflatable greenhouse facilities for food production.

NASA planning scenarios also reveal the Mars surface crew will spend 60% of their time on Mars farming to sustain themselves. Aeroponics is considered the agricultural system of choice because of its low water and power inputs and high volume of food output per sq meter.

Benefits of aeroponics for earth and space

NASA aeroponic lettuce seed germination- Day 3

Aeroponics possesses many characteristics that make it an effective and efficient means of growing plants.

Less nutrient solution throughput

Plants grown using aeroponics spend 99.98% of their time in air and 0.02% in direct contact with hydro-atomized nutrient solution. The time spent without water allows the roots to capture oxygen more efficiently. Furthermore, the hydro-atomized mist also significantly contributes to the effective oxygenation of the roots. For example, NFT has a nutrient throughput of 1 L/minute compared to aeroponics’ throughput of 1.5 ml/minute.

The reduced volume of nutrient throughput results in reduced amounts of nutrients required for plant development.

Another benefit of the reduced throughput, of major significance for space-based use, is the reduction in water volume used. This reduction in water volume throughput corresponds with a reduced buffer volume, both of which significantly lighten the weight needed to maintain plant growth. In addition, the volume of effluent from the plants is also reduced with aeroponics, reducing the amount of water that needs to be treated before reuse.

NASA aeroponic lettuce seed germination- Day 12

The relatively low solution volumes used in aeroponics, coupled with the minimal amount of time that the roots are exposed to the hydro-atomized mist, minimizes root-to-root contact and spread of pathogens between plants.

More control of plant environment

Aeroponics allows more control of the environment around the root zone, as, unlike other plant growth systems, the plant roots are not constantly surrounded by some medium (as, for example, with hydroponics, where the roots are constantly immersed in water).

NASA aeroponic lettuce seed germination (close-up of root zone environment)- Day 19

Improved nutrient feeding

A variety of different nutrient solutions can be administered to the root zone using aeroponics without needing to flush out any solution or matrix in which the roots had previously been immersed. This elevated level of control would be useful when researching the effect of a varied regimen of nutrient application to the roots of a plant species of interest. In a similar manner, aeroponics allows a greater range of growth conditions than other nutrient delivery systems. The interval and duration of the nutrient spray, for example, can be very finely attuned to the needs of a specific plant species. The aerial tissue can be subjected to a completely different environment from that of the roots.

More user-friendly

The design of an aeroponic system allows ease of working with the plants. This results from the separation of the plants from each other, and the fact that the plants are suspended in air and the roots are not entrapped in any kind of matrix. Consequently, the harvesting of individual plants is quite simple and straightforward. Likewise, removal of any plant that may be infected with some type of pathogen is easily accomplished without risk of uprooting or contaminating nearby plants.

More cost effective

Aeroponic systems are more cost effective than other systems. Because of the reduced volume of solution throughput (discussed above), less water and less nutrients are needed in the system at any given time compared to other nutrient delivery systems. The need for substrates is also eliminated, as is the need for many moving parts, resulting in lowered manufacturing cost and reduced maintenance costs.

Close-up of aeroponically grown corn/roots inside an aeroponic (air-culture) apparatus, 2005

Pathogen control and disease prevention

Plants are most susceptible to loss from pathogens during the first 21 days of their life cycle. The aeroponic technology developed by the PI utilizes a patented plant support structure that separates the plants from one another. In a hydroponic or aggregate-based system, pathogen infections can easily spread throughout the entire system due to the plants’ common source of water or medium. In the ideal aeroponic system pathogens can be reduced and controlled by:

  • separating the plants - thus preventing the pathogen from spreading infection from one plant to another.
  • applying disinfectants and fungicides to the aerial and root zones individually,
  • applying the water/nutrient at intervals that are best suited for plant development and growth,
  • allowing the plant to expand without interference of restricting physical barriers,
  • reducing the per plant exposure to surfaces where pathogens can linger or proliferate.

Use of seed stocks

With aeroponics, the deleterious effects of seed stocks that are infected with pathogens can be minimized. As discussed above, this is due to the separation of the plants and the lack of shared growth matrix. In addition, due to the enclosed, controlled environment, aeroponics can be an ideal growth system in which to grow seed stocks that are pathogen-free. The enclosing of the growth chamber, in addition to the isolation of the plants from each other discussed above, helps to both prevent initial contamination from pathogens introduced from the external environment and minimize the spread from one plant to others of any pathogens that may exist.

21st century aeroponics

Aeroponics is an improvement in artificial life support for non-damaging plant support, seed germination, environmental control and rapid unrestricted growth when compared with hydroponics and drip irrigation techniques that have been used for decades by traditional agriculturalists.

Modern aeroponics allows high density companion planting of many food and horticultural crops without the use of pesticides - due to unique discoveries aboard the space shuttle

Contemporary aeroponics

Contemporary aeroponic techniques have been researched at NASA's research and commercialization center BioServe Space Technologies located on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. Other research includes enclosed loop system research at Ames Research Center, where scientists were studying methods of growing food crops in low gravity situations for future space colonization.

In 2000, Stoner was granted a patent for an organic disease control biocontrol technology that allows for pesticide-free natural growing in an aeroponic systems.

Stoner received a patent in 2001 for a novel aeroponic method and apparatus utilizing a low pressure mist generated by centrifugal force utilizing a rotating cylinder device. The rotating cylinder device distributes liquid nutrient solution to the roots of plants by use of centrifugal force, thereby eliminating the need for a high pressure and low pressure pump and nozzles, including ultra-sonic misters. The geometrical shape of the enclosed root growth chamber is such that it allows for fractionated droplets to ricochet in multiple random directions thus completely surrounding the plant roots in 360.degree, in any plane.[11]

Aeroponic bio-pharming

Aeroponic bio-pharming is used to grow pharmaceutical medicine inside of plants. The technology allows for completed containment of allow effluents and by-products of biopharma crops to remain inside a closed-loop facility.

Aeroponically grown biopharma corn, 2005

As recently as 2005, GMO research at South Dakota State University by Dr. Neil Reese applied aeroponics to grow genetically modified corn.

According to Reese it is a historical feat to grow corn in an aeroponic apparatus for bio-massing. The university’s past attempts to grow all types of corn using hydroponics ended in failure.

Using advanced aeroponics techniques to grow genetically modified corn Reese harvested full ears of corn, while containing the corn pollen and spent effluent water and preventing them from entering the environment. Containment of these by-products ensures the environment remains safe from GMO contamination.

Reese says, aeroponics offers the ability to make bio-pharming economically practical.[11]

Large scale integration of aeroponics

In 2006, the Ag University of Hanoi Vietnam in joint efforts with Stoner established the postgraduate doctoral program in aeroponics.

Aeroponic Graduate Program: Hanoi Agricultural University, Hanoi Vietnam

The university's Agrobiotech Research Center, under the direction of Dr. N. Thach, is using aeroponic laboratories to advance Vietnam's minituber potato production for certified seed potato production.

Aeroponic potato explants on day 3 after insertion in the aeroponic system,Hanoi

The historical significants for aeroponics - it is the first time a nation has specifically called out for aeroponics to further an agricultural sector, stimulate farm economic goals, meet increased demands, improve food quality and increase production.

"We have shown that aeroponics, more than any other form of agricultural technology, will significantly improve Vietnam's potato production. We have very little tillable land, aeroponics makes complete economic sense to us”, attested Thach.

Aeroponic greenhouse for potato minituber product Hanoi 2006

Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January 2007. The impact of aeroponics in Vietnam will be felt at the farm level.

Aeroponic integration in Vietnam agriculture will begin by producing a low cost certified disease-free organic minitubers. Which in turn will be supplied to local farmers for their field plantings of seed potatoes and commercial potatoes. Potato farmers will benefit from aeroponics because their seed potatoes will be disease-free and grown without pesticides. Most importantly for the Vietnamese farmer, it will lower their cost of operation and increase their yields, says Thach.[11]

NASA aeroponic links

In popular culture

On the television series Star Trek: Voyager, the starship Voyager is fitted with an aeroponics laboratory by the character Kes for growing herbs and vegetables; the laboratory is occasionally featured as a setting in a number of episodes. On the show, however, the process is referred to as "airponics". [2]

See also

  • Hydroponics
  • Aerogarden - Indoor home garden that uses aeroponic technology

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Stoner, R.J. and J.M. Clawson (1997-1998). A High Performance, Gravity Insensitive, Enclosed Aeroponic System for Food Production in Space. Principal Investigator, NASA SBIR NAS10-98030.
  2. ^ Murphy, Katie. "Farm Grows Hydroponic Lettuce." The Observer 1 December 2006 [1]
  3. ^ du Toit, L.J., H.W. Kirby and W.L. Pedersen (1997). Evaluation of an Aeroponics System to Screen Maize Genotypes for Resistance to Fusarium graminearum Seedling Blight. Plant Disease 81(2): 175-179.
  4. ^ Barak, P., J.D. Smith, A.R. Krueger and L.A. Peterson (1996). Measurement of short-term nutrient uptake rates in cranberry by aeroponics. Plant, Cell and Environment 19: 237-242.
  5. ^ Hoehn, A. (1998). Root Wetting Experiments aboard NASA's KC-135 Microgravity Simulator. BioServe Space Technologies.
  6. ^ a b c d e Stoner, R.J. (1983). Aeroponics Versus Bed and Hydroponic Propagation. Florists' Review Vol 1 173 (4477).
  7. ^ Hubick, K.T., D.R. Drakeford and D.M. Reid (1982). A comparison of two techniques for growing minimally water-stressed plants. Canadian Journal of Botany 60: 219-223.
  8. ^ Coston, D.C., G.W. Krewer, R.C. Owing and E.G. Denny (1983). Air Rooting of Peach Semihardwood Cutting." HortScience 18(3): 323.
  9. ^ Stoner, R.J. (1989). Aeroponic Taxus Growth Experiment., Internal Report, Hauser Chemical
  10. ^ Carter, W.A. (1942). A method of growing plants in water vapor to facilitate examination of roots. Phytopathology 732: 623-625.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g NASA Spinoff (2006) Progressive Plant Growing Has Business Blooming. Environmental and Agricultural Resources NASA Spinoff 2006, pp68-72.
  12. ^ Stoner, R.J (1983). Rooting in Air. Greenhouse Grower Vol I No. 11
  13. ^ Briggs, B.A. (1966). An experiment in air-rooting. International Plant Propagators' Society.
  14. ^ Nir, I. (1982), Apparatus and Method for Plant growth in Aeroponic Conditions., Patent United States
  15. ^ The system employed is described in detail in UK patent No.1 600 477 (filed 12 November 1976 - Complete Specification published 14 October 1981 - title IMPROVEMENTS IN AND RELATING TO THE PROPAGATION OF PLANTS).
  16. ^ a b c d Stoner, R.J. and J.M. Clawson (1999-2000). Low-mass, Inflatable Aeroponic System for High Performance Food Production. Principal Investigator, NASA SBIR NAS10-00017
  17. ^ T.W. Halstead and T.K. Scott (1990). Experiments of plants in space. In Fundamentals of space biology, M. Asashima and G.M. Malacinski (eds.), pp. 9-19. Springer-Verlag.
  18. ^ Dreschel, T.W., C.W. Carlson, H.W. Wells, K.F. Anderson, W.M. Knott and W. Munsey (1993). Physical Testing for the Microgravity Plant Nutrient Experiment. 1993 International Summer Meeting, Spokane, WA, American Society of Agricultural Engineers.
  19. ^ Tibbitts, T.W., W. Cao and R.M. Wheeler (1994). Growth of Potatoes for CELSS. NASA Contractor Report 177646.
  20. ^ Linden, J.C. and Stoner, R.J. (2005). Proprietary Elicitor Affects Seed Germination and Delays Fruit Senescence. Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment (Oct'05).
  21. ^ Linden, J., Stoner, R., Knutson, K. Gardner-Hughes, C. (2000). Organic Disease Control Elicitors. Agro Food Industry Hi-Te (p12-1).
  22. ^ Linden, J.C. and Stoner R.J. (2005). Proprietary Elicitor Amends Potato Emergence and Yields. Potato Grower. April. pp. 34-35.

External links

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