Should we believe in the BioPod, the future space farm that Interstellar Lab is preparing?

maybe you saw only on mars ? In this Ridley Scott film released in 2015, Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, finds himself trapped on the red planet for several years before the arrival of the next manned mission. A botanist by training, the astronaut then began to cultivate, with the means at his disposal, potatoes in the only available habitat, a dome designed to ensure the survival of six people for thirty days.

If he had his way, no doubt the astronaut would have had an easier life with a “BioPods” under hand In the long term, it is in any case in Space, to support the lives of astronauts embarked on long missions to the Moon or Mars, that Interstellar Lab best imagines its agriculture module in a controlled environment.

Hermetically sealed and self-contained

On Tuesday night, from its offices in Ivry-sur-Seine, the French start-up presented its first BioPod in an american show. Mounted on feet – “which allows it to be easily installed without any type of foundation”, specifies Barbara Bebilvisi, president of Interstellar Lab – the module, all in an ellipse, is 7 meters high, 10 meters long and 6 meters wide. Its base, at least that of this first specimen, is made of composite materials, “the same, more or less, as those used for ship hulls,” we told Interstellar Lab. The rest is made up ofan ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) membraneinflatable and transparent.

It is through her that we glimpse what is happening inside. The crops take place on several floors, on 55 m² and in an automated and controlled environment. Until being able to reproduce the climate of a region very different from the one where the BioPod is installed. And in the bins, without land. “The roots are exposed and sprayed with a solution of water and nutrients.”

Everything is hermetically sealed and works independently. The BioPod captures CO2 from the surrounding environment to put it at the service of plant growth. As for water, “everything that is not used in the plant is recovered, treated and put back into the circuit”, explains Valentin Feist, head of communication at Interstellar Lab. The electricity supply remains, the axis on which still working startup. “Today, the BioPod is connected to the electricity grid, but we are working on a system that will make it autonomous from this point of view as well, with low-carbon and portable power sources.”

This Tuesday night, the start-up Interstellar Lab presented its first BioPod, a module for agriculture in a controlled environment that could one day make it possible to grow plants in space.
This Tuesday night, the start-up Interstellar Lab presented its first BioPod, a module for agriculture in a controlled environment that could one day make it possible to grow plants in space. – Fabrice Pouliquen / 20 Minutes

A lunar BioPod by 2027?

Is this the BioPod that Interstellar Lab hopes to one day see blast off to the Moon? “It will look quite similar”, says Barbara Bebilvisi in any case, specifying that there is still a lot of work to be done to adapt it to spatial limitations. She mentions a contract that would tie Interstellar Lab to NASA for the next five years to build this Lunar BioPod. But without going into details. “This will be the subject of another announcement, rather in November,” she says.

Alexis Paillet, from Cnes, the French space agency, where he is head of ES spaceship project, which aims to prepare human and robotic space exploration, is unaware of this contract, although he knows that Barbara Bellivisi has many connections in the United States. “But like many other space companies that are also working on these issues of culture of living beings in space and are involved in challenges launched by NASA on the subject”.

As for whether Interstellar Lab has gotten the upper hand with their BioPod, Alexis Paillet, again, gets pissed off. “This first version doesn’t take spatial constraints into account,” she says. We are already unable to send this type of module into space. The design needs to be reviewed as well. One of the limitations of growing on the Moon is to protect yourself from radiation. So it is impossible to have a module with a transparent membrane. »

earth before space

In short, there is still work and surely for more than five years. “But it’s normal, continues Alexis Paille. The reflection is just beginning and the projects, both from Interstellar and from its competitors, are still immature. These grow modules are unlikely to be needed on the Moon or Mars before 2035.”

Meanwhile, Barbara Bellivisi turns to Earth, where she thinks her BioPods can be of great use as well. The Interstellar president then lists the limits of the current global farming system. Its greenhouse gas emissions (around 23% of global emissions), the surfaces it uses (40% of the planet’s land), its significant consumption of fresh water, etc.

These modules would promise to avoid some of these impacts. The recycling of water and the capture of C02 -an average ton per year per year- are not the only advantages highlighted by Interstellar Lab. “It also means increases in agricultural yields, less land used, no pollution…”, it boasts. Barbara Bellivisi. And it can be deployed anywhere and quickly. There remains the question of the expected volumes of product: “An average of five tons per year per BioPod”, slides Barabara Bellivisi. It is not enough to replace crops in open fields. But that is not the goal. “We will never use a Biopode to produce salad in France,” she illustrates.

Ten BioPods will arrive in 2023

On the other hand, Interstellar Lab has identified scenarios where its modules could be useful. Even with a view to food production “where the soil is too damaged or where there is a lack of space”, Barabara Bellivisi begins. Interstellar Lab is also looking at the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, sectors that use many natural ingredients, including plants that grow far from their laboratories. Among the twelve plants that are already in the catalog of the start-up is the following: Madagascar Periwinkle, cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions “and which contains two molecules used in the chemotherapy treatment of many types of cancer”, indicates Barbara Bellivisi. Finally, Interstellar Lab does not forget about scientific research, which could use BioPods to conserve plant species in danger of extinction or work on the adaptation of crops to climate change.

In short, there would be a lot to do. Barbara Bellivisi says that she already has 200 BioPod pre-orders. “We will build ten more in 2023, but the idea is to be able to produce 100 per year very quickly.” This is the entire economic model of Interstellar Lab: sell as many BioPods as possible to “terrestrial” customers to continue dreaming of Space. But there again, Alexis Paillet asks to see. “We will have to see how this BioPOd behaves in more difficult conditions than in the hangar where it was created”, he begins. It’s certainly very nice, but this module is not that different from what you did Agricool (another French start-up) growing in converted shipping containers,” he says.

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