Alternative Energy Crops in Space

March 10, 2010 by Lori Meggs
Fruits of J. curcas. Fruits are produced terminally in the branches, and each fruit contains three seeds. Image credit: Dr. Wagner A Vendrame, University of Florida at Homestead

( -- What if space held the key to producing alternative energy crops on Earth? That's what researchers are hoping to find in a new experiment on the International Space Station.

The experiment, National Lab Pathfinder-Cells 3, is aimed at learning whether microgravity can help jatropha curcas plant cells grow faster to produce biofuel, or derived from biological matter. Jatropha is known to produce high quality oil that can be converted into an fuel, or biofuel.

By studying the effects of microgravity on jatropha cells, researchers hope to accelerate the cultivation of the plant for commercial use by improving characteristics such as cell structure, growth and development. This is the first study to assess the effects of microgravity on cells of a biofuel plant.

"As the search for alternate energy sources has become a top priority, the results from this study could add value for commercialization of a new product,” said Wagner Vendrame, principal investigator for the experiment at the University of Florida in Homestead. "Our goal is to verify if microgravity will induce any significant changes in the cells that could affect plant growth and development back on Earth."

Launched on Endeavour’s STS-130 mission in February, cell cultures of jatropha were sent to the space station in special flasks containing nutrients and vitamins. The cells will be exposed to microgravity until they return to Earth aboard space shuttle Discovery's STS-131 mission targeted for April.

Fluid Processing Apparatus (FPA) containing cell suspensions of J. curcas. The FPAs will be assembled into the Group Activation Pack (GAP), which will be transported to the ISS for microgravity studies. Image credit: Dr. Wagner A Vendrame, University of Florida at Homestead

For comparison studies of how fast the cultures grow, a replicated set of samples are being maintained at the University of Florida's Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead.

"Watching the space shuttle go up carrying a little piece of my work is an indescribable experience," said Vendrame. "Knowing that my experiment could contribute to creating a sustainable means for biofuel production on Earth, and therefore making this a better world adds special value to the work."

Explore further: ISS crew continues preparations for visitors next week

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not rated yet Mar 11, 2010
is it just me, or is this as dumb as using foodcrops as fuel?
So, we'll loft water, fertilizer, O2/CO2 into orbit and return BIODIESEL??? Are we going to sequester CO2, ship it to orbit just to grow plants to return to earth? Why is NASA wasting time on experiments such as this, and not focusing on manufacturing tech like how to smelt metals, or reduce regolith in orbit?
not rated yet Mar 11, 2010
You are not reading the article correctly. The implications of this experiment are that subtle changes, or adaptations, that occur to these seeds during development in microgravity might lead to improved productivity when these seeds are planted in the ground down here on Earth.

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