The astronauts that lift off for Mars in the distant future might just eat their leafy greens from a shipping container during the yearlong journey.
Clemson University researcher Joshua Summers has partnered with Boston-based company Freight Farms to create a Self-Sustaining Crop Production Unit (SSCPU), which is based on the company’s Leafy Green Machine — a shipping container retrofitted as a mobile hydroponic farm.
The 320-square-foot container uses LED lighting strips that disperse red and blue light (required for photosynthesis) in between vertical rows of plants. Meanwhile, a closed loop hydroponic system delivers nutrient water to the roots, and an automated climate-control system regulates temperature and humidity.
The Leafy Green Machine is used by more than 60 restaurants across the nation. It can produce up to 7,000 plants at a time and uses only 10 gallons of water a day. But it could be better.
“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,” Summers said.
Summers, a mechanical engineering professor, has formed a team to create a modified container that runs independently from the energy grid and uses renewable sources. The research is being funded by a $125,000 NASA Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTT) grant, which encourages collaboration between small businesses and research institutions.
Clemson partnered with Freight Farms after John Kelly, a Clemson alumnus and lead engineer at Freight Farms, reached out to Summers, his former professor, about the grant opportunity. The duo partnered and then applied for the NASA grant. Their proposal is one of 399 selected proposals and one of 58 proposals chosen under the SBTT program.
Summers and his team are trying to find ways to capture the heat generated by the LED lighting strips inside the container. That could help cool the inside of the container. That heat could also be redirected to the space shuttle’s onboard systems, providing a more efficient energy source.
Take a look inside the Leafy Green Machine:
The first phase of the research project is to develop sensors that monitor temperature, humidity and other conditions inside the containers. The team will also research methods to reclaim and recycle humidity so that the container doesn’t need a hydration source.
“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.”
But the modified container has potential for more terrestrial applications. It could be used to supply a stable food source for disaster relief, military bases, mining and offshore industries and people living in harsh, remote areas of the world, according to Summers.
For more information, visit freightfarms.com.