The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has long studied plant growth in space for environmental management and food production aboard the International Space Station and future, extraplanetary human colonies. These studies have shown that microgravity impedes plant growth in a variety of ways, and NASA actively seeks new technologies to measure plant health in space as a function of externally controlled variables. In this Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, Nikira Labs Inc. and Colorado State University (CSU) will collaborate to develop an analyzer that measures oxygen (O2), carbon dioxide (CO2), oxygen isotope (d18O-O2), and carbon isotope (d13C-CO2) fluxes in plant chambers for direct quantification of photosynthesis, respiration, and plant health.
In Phase I, Nikira Labs will develop and test a prototype analyzer to measure these key gases and their isotopes. After extensive laboratory testing to empirically determine its analytical performance, the unit will be deployed at Colorado State University to study gas fluxes from plant chambers. These plants will be subject to various stressors and the measured quantities will be directly correlated to an independent measure of photosynthetic efficiency to evaluate the STTR analyzers application for plant health monitoring. Finally, the Phase I results will be used to develop a Phase II instrument for application and delivery to NASA.
Growing plants in space has several advantages in life support systems. Plants can be used for future extraplanetary colonies and provide fresh vegetables for missions. Thus, NASA has developed plant growth chambers including the Advanced Plant Habitat. Researchers have found that plant growth in microgravity is impeded by several factors. In order to compensate for this, NASA must actively measure plant health. The STTR analyzer will provide a real-time measure of plant health, allowing for both active monitoring and control.
In addition to its application in space-based programs, the proposed system can also be used for research and wastewater management. A preliminary market analysis suggests a cumulative 5-year revenue of $29M - $48M from these two markets alone.