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Pure Innovation
Hydroponic gardening Hydroponic techniques—like those used to grow these onions, lettuce, and radishes in this plant growth chamber in Kennedy Space Center’s Space Life Sciences Laboratory—may one day contribute to the development of a bioregenerative life support system.
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ChemScan analyzer The ChemScan analyzer ties directly into a treatment facility’s control system, minimizing the need for operator intervention.
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This spinoff shows how planning for long missions can lead to benefits back home.

If you are planning a day at your local park or even a weekend camping trip, you would simply pack all the food, drink, and supplies you need. Similarly, astronauts on short-term space missions can get away with packing the provisions they need to survive in space.

But long-term space travel—a round-trip journey to Mars, for example—is no picnic. Depending on the mission, astronauts would need enough food to last for several months or years, a means to clean the air and water, and some efficient way of dealing with waste. Given cost and space limitations, packing supplies on this scale may not be feasible. The best solution, then, for future deep space explorers: Develop a green thumb.

The same qualities that make plant life essential on Earth make it an ideal engine for long-term life support in space. Plants actively purify and recycle air supplies, absorbing carbon dioxide and noxious fumes while releasing oxygen. They also provide a regenerating food supply, transpire water vapor into the air that can be condensed and collected for drinking, and filter contaminants in water through their root systems.

Analyzing a Solution

But growing plants in space presents unique challenges. For one, using soil may not work due to its weight, the problem of particles floating about in zero gravity, and the potential for harboring health-threatening germs. To address this issue, NASA has focused on developing hydroponic methods of growing plants in space. Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants in nutrient solutions, without true soil.

The hydroponic solutions typically contain a variety of elements that are taken up at different rates by different plants and need to be replenished when their concentrations drop below ideal levels. Working with NASA, a company developed an analyzer that provides real-time detection of nutrients, organics, and metals in water. That technology, called the ChemScan analyzer, is now manufactured and marketed by ASA Analytics Inc. of Waukesha, Wisconsin. It currently monitors the treatment processes at water and wastewater facilities around the world and helps maintain water quality in major American cities like Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Tampa.

“Water is rarely found in pure form,” says Bernie Beemster, president of ASA. “It contains any number of contaminants and other chemical and biological constituents that need to be found and removed.”

A Cost-Efficient Outcome

Earlier technology would require water samples to be physically extracted from various points along the treatment process and taken to a lab for analysis—a time consuming and labor intensive procedure that left significant gaps between measurements. ChemScan’s capabilities allow it to automatically draw and analyze samples for ammonia and other nutrient levels, water hardness, or amounts of natural organic matter. ChemScan analyzers require little maintenance or calibration, making them a cost-efficient technology.

“The sum total of what ChemScan provides is a small fraction of the price that would be required to do the same task with other technologies,” says Beemster.

While populations across the globe can credit the ChemScan analyzers with helping ensure the quality of their water supplies, Beemster credits the NASA-derived technology as the core reason for his company’s success. “Over our history, we’ve had a compound annual growth rate of 40 percent as a direct result of this unique technology,” Beemster says.

“That’s pretty remarkable.”

To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original article from Spinoff 2010.