Taking aeroponics back to its roots: The history of aeroponics and why it matters.

The aeroponic origin story is deeply rooted in space and science fiction. In space, crews must utilise all resources to their fullest potential, reducing, reusing and recycling everything they take with them. While the problems faced by astronauts may seem a million miles away, the answers to their problems can provide some really down to earth solutions to issues facing humanity today.

What is aeroponics? 

Aeroponics is a method of growing plants without soil and using little water. In an aeroponic system, plant roots are suspended in the air and are periodically surrounded by a nutrient-dense mist which gives them access to the water, nutrients and gasses the plants need to grow. 

 

Who invented aeroponics? 

The term aeroponics was originally coined by the Dutch biologist, Frits Warmolt Went in 1957 but it was a full 29 years before the first aeroponically grown food was sold in a national grocery chain by Richard Stoner. 

 

Stoner filed his first aeroponic patent in 1983 and went on to found a number of companies which would research and advance aeroponic technology. One of his companies, called Genesis Technology Incorporated or GTI, was the first to bring commercial-scale aeroponic systems into greenhouses for commercial crop production. Both the company’s name and their first product, the Genesis Machine, were inspired by the plot of a recent Star Trek movie, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”. In the film, the Genesis Device was a sophisticated technological innovation designed to alleviate sociological problems such as overpopulation and limited food supplies. Stoner was a big advocate for the resource-conserving capacity of aeroponics, particularly its efficient use of water. 

 

Stoner began working at Colorado State University on a disease control formula which could cooperate with a plant’s immune system within the aeroponic environment to improve growth and prevent disease and infection. The formula was called Organic Disease Control, ODC. In the past, other researchers' previous attempts to stimulate a plant’s immune system had all come up short. News of Stoner’s successes was spreading and caught the attention of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or as it is more commonly called, NASA. 

 

Aeroponics in space 

NASA began funding Stoner’s research into aeroponics. In 1997, they teamed with Stoner to develop an aeroponic experiment for use on the Mir space station. Much of the importance placed on aeroponics by NASA centres around efficient resource use. For long-term space missions to be successful, crews will need to produce some of their own food while in transit. Every bit of food produced and water conserved on a spacecraft reduces weight and opens up space for other cargo. This, along with the increased growing speeds and reduced weight of the growing set-up itself (due to the removal of soil and reduction in water use) made aeroponics an attractive solution for space travel. It was not just NASA who got involved. The EDEN ISS project, based in Antarctica also took an interest. The Eden ISS “develops safe food production for on-board the International Space Station (ISS) and for future human space exploration vehicles and planetary outposts”. The Future Exploration Greenhouse was the heart of the project, it aims to “investigate and validate techniques for plant cultivation in future bio-regenerative life support systems”. One of these techniques is aeroponics. 

 

Why is this relevant today? 

While all this talk of sci-fi film inspired inventions and growing food in space may feel intangible, it’s far from it. How we utilise our resources as the population grows is one of our most pressing questions. Fertile land, freshwater and good weather conditions are not always readily available to grow crops where we need them. Over 97% of human land-use can be attributed to agriculture and our soils are becoming increasingly degraded. To maintain sustainable levels of water resources, rates of water withdrawals must be below rates of freshwater replenishment. Climate change and bio-energy demands are also expected to amplify the already complex relationship between world development and water demand. Globally we use approximately 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals for agriculture. Aeroponic technology can streamline resource use in agriculture. Aeroponic farms need no fertile land to operate and use 95% less water than traditional agriculture.

 

Space travel has been the catalyst for many inventions we can’t imagine living without today: LEDs, smartphones, baby formula, smoke alarms, memory foam, home insulation, CAT scans, wireless headphones and even modern trainers! Will aeroponics be next on this list? 

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