NASA Looking Into Growing Biofuel Crops In Outer Space

Part of the controversy surrounding the development of biofuels is that there’s only so much arable land on planet Earth–and with so much of the population of many developing countries going hungry, using that land to grow fuel to power industrialized countries poses some serious ethical dilemmas. But what if we found a way to create a biofuels supercrop, that could make highly efficient use of farmland? And what if the future of biofuels wasn’t on Earth? What it if was in space?

Those are some of the questions that will inform a new experiment at the International Space Station. According to NASA, the experiment, dubbed National Lab Pathfinder-Cells 3, is aimed at learning whether microgravity can help cells of the jatropha plant– known to produce high quality oil that can be converted into an alternative energy fuel, or biofuel–grow faster to produce biofuel, in a kind of highly efficient supercrop. Cell cultures of the plant recently accompanied astronauts on space shuttle Endeavour’s STS-130 mission in February, and were delivered to the International Space Station in special flasks containing nutrients and vitamins, where they will be exposed to microgravity until they return to Earth aboard space shuttle Discovery’s STS-131 mission, targeted for April of 2010.

Jatropha

image via NASA

“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, in a statement. “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.”

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Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.