Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Jeff did an interview with Bill Hargenrader for his webseries Mars Now. They talked a little bit about the Zero-G hydro-organic system we were running and how this method could be used for farming in space. Bill really liked our idea and suggested that we join his team for the Mars City Design competition.
For our submission, we described how Galactic Farms has been creating a hydroponic fertilizer using recycled materials like food scraps and lumber byproduct. Recycling nutrients like this is important for any closed loop system, whether that be a remote city in the Rocky Mountains or a settlement on Mars. The process is easy for us in our city because there are already a lot of biologically fixed materials around to extract nutrients from. Mars, in contrast, has plenty of raw minerals but they are not necessarily available to plant roots. To translate what we were doing to a Martian setting, we needed to do more research on Martian conditions and what has been proposed in the scientific literature so far.
We had recently read a review on cyanobacteria; Verseux et al. 2016. Verseux is an astrobiologist who spent the past year on the Hi-SEAS crew with our friend Carmel Johnson (She was commander for Hi-SEAS, a year-long Mars simulation through the University of Hawaii). His review article talked about extremophile cyanobacteria being used to grow biomass on Martian regolith, aka undeveloped soil. They talked about using this biomass for various purposes such as a soil builder or biofuel.
To build a soil the traditional way, 25 parts carbon are needed for every 1 part nitrogen. Some cyanobacteria species can be grown with protein concentrations that range between 40-50%, meaning that the nitrogen content is also high (because nitrogen is the central atom in all amino acids, the building block of protein molecules). To compost the cyanobacteria in the traditional way, a 25 part carbon starter would need to be imported from earth. After the soil is formed, more atmospheric carbon on Mars could be captured and be used to contribute to the next 25 parts carbon needed to compost 1 part nitrogen from the cyanobacteria. A species like hemp would be excellent for this purpose. In addition to building soil, the biomass produced from this process could be converted into a hydroponic fertilizer much like we have been doing at Galactic Farms. After the nutrients are extracted, a carbon rich biomass is leftover that can be added back to the compost culture and help contribute to the 25 parts carbon needed to process 1 part nitrogen.
Is this confusing? Here is a diagram of the process made by the very talented Joel Freedman of Satellite Applications Catapult, London.
By the way, I had never before worked with someone who is an expert at communicating weird start up ideas in a publically consumable way. Working with him and Fernando Carballal from Catapult was really an awesome experience.
A few weeks later we got the news that we had been accepted into the Mars City Design competition, initially ranking 1st place in the Agricultural section and 3rd place overall. However, the final round of the competition would occur after the Power Lab, a week long design seminar featuring amazing speakers and visits to space industry locations in the greater Los Angeles area. Jeff and I had already booked out honeymoon plans in Ireland, and were unfortunately unable to make it to the first part of the Power Lab. The biggest bummer was missing the day right before we arrived when Carmel Johnson spoke about her experiences in the Hi_SEAS Mars simulation. Luckily we were able to meet up with her in Montana the following week.
We did, however, make it to LA in time to visit NASA JPL, hosted by Jim Erickson
He was so lovely to talk to and he patiently answered about a million of my questions. On our tour we saw the command center (wicked cool) and MAGGIE (mars automated giant gizmo integrated engineering) the Mars Rover clone.
Jeff and I were both pretty excited about that. We spent the rest of the day getting to know the other teams and the guys from Catapult who had been brought on by MCD to help us present our projects at the final Gala. The best thing about this group of people is their earnest excitement in the vision of interplanetary exploration. They were all really fun people to hang out with. I wont get into the behinds the scenes details too much, but we were all together when Elon Musk shared his plans for putting a million people on Mars with his new 42 rocket engine. So many of the problems he shrugged off were addressable by people sitting in the room with us. That was a pretty exciting that we were thinking about these problems ahead of time and even if none of us may ever go to mars (no thank you, personally), we can contribute to making the experience more pleasant for those that do take that pioneering leap in the future.
Part of the goal of Mars City Design is to connect designers and inventors with venture capitol by displaying our projects in this public forum. Jeff and I were a little wary of the idea of creating a product because we really want Galactic Farms to grow slowly. Plus, creating a turn-key food producing unit has some logistical problems. I’m not saying that it couldn’t ever be done, but with the technology available right now it would be very expensive to create a self regulating system because it would require a lot of expensive sensors. The reality is that these systems really required educated maintenance. It’s less work than traditional soil based farming in some respects, but it is less forgiving if something does go wrong. If we were to sell a bunch of affordable “turn-key” systems to the public right now, their likelihood of success would be low unless the consumer invested time into learning to operate it. It’s not really like a fun toy-gadget, it’s more like a robotic white elephant.
However, we wanted to show that our design could also be applied to solve problems on earth. Jeff got the idea that we propose a line of fertilizers created using cyanobacteria and recycled materials.
This solves several problems:
1) Hydroponic fertilizer has many components that are mined and processed using fossil fuels; total cost to Earth citizens is high even though cost of ingredients is low to the individual grower
2) Hydroponic fertilizers are shipped from a central manufacturing location, this is also a costly paradigm for reasons previously mentioned
3) 30% (or more) of produce is wasted at the grocery and consumer level
There are some signs that a product like this is already in the works but it still is not a mainstream solution. Furthermore, producers of hydro-organic products like these are still working in a fossil fuel dependent centralized production paradigm. Rather than creating a hydro-organic production center, communities should each be settling up their own recycled material processing centers to produce nutrients for their own crops produced in the city.
Moreover, cyanobacteria blooms are a major problem in areas of fertilizer run off. This material could be harvested and used in the nutrient extraction process as described in the diagram. We were pretty excited about that idea and our teammates Ron Sparkman, Daniele and Bill Hargenrader were super supportive with last minute research and correspondence as we wrapped up our pivot with a rusty red bow.
The Gala itself was really great. My favorite designs were from our collaborators from China, Green Cloud and Instant Structure created by the very wonderful Asal Shokati. I just about freaked out when they both won in their categories. Jeff tried to hush me, but whatever. Who doesn’t enjoy being cheered? Hopefully both of the teams pursue their design ideas. If they do, we are happy to collaborate further and offer and logistical advice that we can offer from our experience in creating gardens in strange places. Jeff would be irritated with this blog entry if I didn’t mention that we did WIN in the agriculture section of the competition. We were very delighted to have scored so well. We shared our success with Dean Little, founder of Ares Astronautics, who is quite a smart guy with lots of really great ideas. That was not his only winning project that night! He had quite a few very applicable ideas that will meet the needs of early settlers.
Awards aside, the Gala was so much fun because Vera Mulyani put together such a fascinating showcase of all the inspiration that went into our projects. There were really funny clips from the Power Lab workshop. My favorite moment was when Jeff accidently dropped one of the 3D city models and broke it. Jeff Smash. Also, Buzz Aldrin showed up and spoke about Cycling Pathways to Mars Via Lunar Resources, his ideas of getting to Mars. He is a really interesting guy and it was great to have him stop by and give a wink to what we are all up to.
That's Buzz in the top right and Liam Kennedy of ISS-Above in the left
Being involved in the inaugural Mars City Design competition and Power Lab workshop was an incredible experience and we are both so grateful to have been invited to participate. Many thanks to the founder and director of Mars City Design Vera Mulyani as well as everyone who supported this event on kickstarter and to all the space industry professions that showed up to support the workshop. We look forward to seeing what people are able to come up with next year. Also, winning designs will be 3D printed in the Mojave Desert! Sounds like a cool stop to visit next time we visit the southlands.