Will the first people to bake and eat bread on Mars do it thanks to new research starting in January?
This is the challenge facing the SpaceBakery project, a unique consortium composed of seven Belgian organisations and led by the global bakery,pastry and chocolate expert Puratos. However, before they use their research to help feed the first people on the red planet later this century, the project aims to have a clear impact on Earth today.
The project will focus on how we can produce food in a more sustainable way and will help provide a nutritional staple food for many regions across the globe. The consortium has just been awarded a new subsidy of 4.5 million euros, contributing to a total of over 6.3 million euros in funding.
Four large interconnected containers will soon be installed at Puratos’ headquarters near Brussels, Belgium. From the outside they may seem ordinary, but on 1 January 2020 researchers will start working in the enclosed ecological plant cultivation system and bakery.
What they discover could have a huge impact on our food production on Earth, as well as on Mars once humans launch their space exploration efforts.
Using the impressive plant cultivation infrastructure, researchers from the seven members of the consortium will learn how to create the ideal environment for the efficient production of wheat crops, as well as other plants that could be included in bread to increase its nutritional value.
But, why focus on bread? Because it is highly nutritional and consumed all over the world, making it an ideal candidate as a staple food for space exploration.
Speaking about the project, Upstream R&D Director at Puratos, Filip Arnaut said: “With this consortium, we are bringing together various knowledge domains and expertise in order to answer a very important question: how can we further improve nutritional value, sustainability and the efficient use of energy to produce food – here bread, one of our main specialties – today, but also tomorrow in more challenging environments.”
The environment on Mars is very different from ours on Earth; the lack of atmosphere, cold temperatures and dust storms don’t provide the right conditions for crop growth. It’s for this reason that the research will take place in the coupled containers, a closed and self-sustainable system in which the climate can be adapted to make it suitable for crop growth, with optimal use of resources.
In parallel to the research on crops, the consortium will also study many other aspects involved in the entire food production cycle, such as the use and recycling of resources, the monitoring of microbial climate, influence of radiation, and pollination through automated drones.
The consortium is led by Puratos, an international producer of ingredients and innovative solutions for the bakery, pastry and chocolate sector, headquartered in Belgium. Their century-long expertise in bread-making and innovation will be key as food consumed on Mars or on Earth must be nutritional - and also tasty.
Urban Crop Solutions, a solution provider for vertical farming, developed the plant growth infrastructure and will further engineer a variable climate biosphere, a hermetically sealed building in which different climatic conditions can be simulated to support the growth of a diverse range of crops, combined with human habitation. The company will also work on the development of an AI algorithm to optimise crop growth and minimise the resource inputs.
Magics Instruments, a technology company specialised in the development of semiconductor chips and machine learning-based smart sensors, will focus on the automation of pollination and work with Urban Crop Solutions to investigate how artificial intelligence can optimise crop growth.
SCK•CEN, the BioSciences research group, will study the effect of microorganisms on the release of nutrients to plants and monitor the overall microbial climate in the closed environment. Additionally, they will investigate the impact of increased ionising radiation, as is present in space and on Mars, on wheat growth.
Ghent University, through its applied plant eco-physiological research at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, will create a 3D model of wheat growth and development using functional-structural plant modelling and data from innovative plant sensors. This “virtual 3D-crop” will then be used to determine the most optimal and sustainable way to grow wheat in the closed biosphere system.
The University of Hasselt, with its centre for environmental science, will analyse how the waste of the wheat plant can be used to make the closed biosphere system circular by reusing organic matter.
Flanders' Food, the agri-food spearhead cluster and supporter of the project, will focus on collaboration across the food value chain. They will also guide the further coordination and dissemination of the project.
Inge Arents, Managing Director of Flanders’ FOOD, said: “The SpaceBakery project is important for Flanders’ FOOD’s strategy. It is an example of sustainable and resilient agri-food systems, emphasising how agriculture and food production can allow future generations to enjoy tasty food for a healthy lifestyle. We hope that this project inspires other companies in the broad ecosystem around the food industry. We are grateful to Vlaio that we were able to support the funding of this project.”
The unique consortium was recently launched and will start its research in Belgium on 1 January 2020 for a period of two-and-a-half years. A total of 6.3 million euros will be invested by the seven partners to fund the research.
The Space Bakery project prioritises sustainability, health and the efficient use of resources, providing solutions that will be extremely relevant for space technology tomorrow and here on Earth today.