Young people invent a device to grow food in space and in cities vulnerable to climate change

This también publication is available in: Español

Translator: Arianna Hernandez

For years, Amanda Castro was told that anything related to electronics was a subject for men. On top of that, in Guanacaste, where she was born and raised, there was no opportunity for her to study this area that caught her attention. She wanted to challenge those two conditions that were stacked against her.

Today, the 19-year-old from Nicoya is in her second year of electronic engineering and is one of 11 young people who aspire to represent Costa Rica and Latin America at the PromoMoon 2022 Initiative, which will be held virtually, and at the International Astronautical Congress in France. They are the only ones from all of Latin America chosen for the congress.

His group was selected because he invented the Biodôme, a system that isolates crops from the outside environment so that they grow with adjusted conditions, such as light, nutrients, humidity or acidity.

With this device, students from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (TEC for the Spanish acronym) and the University of Costa Rica (UCR) are trying to solve two problems:

  1. The need to produce food that astronauts can have during their space missions.
  2. Production difficulties for areas where growing conditions are increasingly hostile due to climate change.

This is the case in Guanacaste, where flooding in the rainy season and arid land in the dry season can affect food production.

“It is increasingly difficult to ensure that the land that is sown will yield a harvest. At any time, a natural disaster strikes, a problem arises and he is lost,” explained one of the project coordinators, Facundo Mendoza.

The Biodôme operates using a technique called culture in vitro. Initially, the plants are grown in the laboratory with all the nutrients the plant needs. Once the plants have reached a certain degree of maturity, the crop is acclimatized in a greenhouse for a period of time—depending on the crop in question— and placed in the biodome.

But why is the biodome special? With its isolated structure, it protects the crop from pests and diseases. Additionally, it has multiple sensors that provide information on temperature, relative humidity, CO2 levels, and light intensity, so grow parameters can be monitored and configured to respond appropriately. the most appropriate way and be the most productive in the shortest possible time. .

The idea was born out of a proposal to secure food crops on other planets. When space agencies such as SpaceX or NASA started commenting on the colonization of Mars, students said, “Wait a minute, but the people who are going to live there have to eat,” Facundo said.

Thus by controlling the conditions which can be zero in a space environment, or very unstable due to the effects of climate change, they think that greater security of food production can be achieved in these places.

This Biodôme prototype is designed for growing lettuce, rice and strawberries. The team wants to keep improving it to work with other crops like mushrooms and hemp. Photo: Courtesy of the Biodôme

Form a team

Amanda grew up in Caimital de Nicoya, about 10 kilometers from the city center of the township. She would never have imagined studying a field at the TEC, having to go to Cartago. Despite this, she always wanted to study something related to electrical engineering, and that’s why she had to move to the greater metropolitan area (GMA).

“In Guanacaste, there is no TEC campus. There is only one for the UCR which is in Liberia. There are even many fields that you can start in Liberia but must finish in the GMA, so there’s not a lot of possibilities in that part of engineering that has to do with computers, electronics and those things,“, commented the student.

In addition, the group saw the Biodôme project as an opportunity where diversity and equality of people are found. For example, five members are women studying in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

According to the United Nations, worldwide, women make up only 35% of those who study these fields because of the inequalities that exist in homes, schools and even in higher education centers for them to develop professionally in these areas.

Amanda said that she had always been interested in subjects related to electricity and electronics, but she confirmed that she was really passionate about this subject when she started her studies.

“I used to say ‘it’s cool to create a device for women’s safety’, or something like that that has to do with the police,” said the young woman.

Amanda lives in an apartment in Cartago, but when she travels to Nicoya by bus, it can take up to five hours. Photo: Courtesy of Amanda Castro

Another aspect that the group highlights is the diversity origins they have due to coming from different parts of the country. Amanda is the team member in the farthest area from Cartago, but there are also others who must travel two, three, and even four hours to get to the TEC campus.

From now on, they combine all their efforts to raise enough money to attend the International Astronautical Congress in Paris. They must cover airfare, admission to the event, seven nights’ accommodation, transportation and food. They feel that they need about $2,400 per person, which would be a total of $26,400 for the whole team.

According to another of the students named Tania Ramirez, the funds raised could also be used to finance project expenses.

“Everything we have done so far has been with our own funds, but like any project, there are very expensive things that we cannot afford. So a lot of the money we are able to raise could also be used for the development of the project,” she said.

If you want to help this group of young people, contact them via their Facebook page, instagram and Twitter. In addition, you can donate to the IBAN account in colones in the name of Facundo Mendoza, project coordinator, at the Banco de Costa Rica: CR66015202001333849404 or via Sinpe Movil: 8757-2477.