Are we to believe the BioPod, the future space farm that Interstellar Lab is preparing?

Maybe you have seen Alone on Mars ? In this Ridley Scott film released in 2015, Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, finds himself stuck on the Red Planet for several years before the arrival of the next manned mission. The astronaut, who is a trained botanist, then began growing potatoes in the only available habitat with the means at hand, a dome designed to ensure the survival of six people for thirty days.

If he succeeds, the astronaut would undoubtedly have had an easier life with a “BioPod” at hand. In the long term, in any case in space, to support the lives of astronauts embarked on long missions on the Moon or Mars, Interstellar Lab best envisions its agriculture module in a controlled environment.

Hermetically sealed and autonomous

On Tuesday evening, from its office in Ivry-sur-Seine, the French start-up presented its first BioPod at an American show. Mounted on feet – “which makes it easy to install without any foundation”, specifies Barbara Bebilvisi, founder and president of Interstellar Lab – the module, all in ellipse, is 7 meters high, 10 long and 6 wide. Its base, at least this first copy, is made of composite materials, “more or less the same as those used for boat hulls,” we specify to Interstellar Lab. The rest is made of an inflatable and transparent Ethylene tetrafuloroethylene (ETFE) membrane.

It is through her that we get a glimpse of what goes on inside. Cultures take place on several floors, on 55 m² and in an automated and controlled environment. Until one is able to reproduce the climate of a region very different from the one where the BioPod is installed. And in the bins, no soil. “The roots are exposed and sprayed with a solution of water and nutrients.”

Everything is hermetically sealed and works independently. The BioPod captures CO2 in the surrounding environment to use for plant growth. As for the water, “everything not used by the facility is recovered, treated and put back into the cycle,” explains Valentin Feist, head of communications at Interstellar Lab. There remains the electricity supply, an axis on which the startup continues to work. “To date, the BioPod is connected to the power grid, but we are working on a system that will also make it autonomous from this point of view, with portable and low-carbon energy sources”.

This Tuesday night, startup Interstellar Lab unveiled its first BioPod, a module for farming in a controlled environment that could one day make it possible to grow plants in space. – Fabrice Pouliquen / 20 minutes

A lunar BioPod in 2027?

Is this the BioPod that Interstellar Lab hopes to see one day go to the Moon? “It’s going to look pretty good,” says Barbara Bebilvisi in any case, specifying that there is still a lot of work to adapt it to the spatial constraints. She mentions a contract that will tie Interstellar Lab to NASA over 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, of Cnes, the French space agency, where he heads the Spaceship FR project, which aims to prepare human and robotic space exploration, is not aware of this contract, although he knows that Barbara Bellivisi has many connections in the United States. “But like many other space companies that also work with these questions about the culture of living things in space and participate in the challenges that NASA has launched on the subject.”

As for whether Interstellar Lab has taken the lead with its BioPod, Alexis Pailler, again, temper. “This first version doesn’t take spatial constraints into account,” he says. We are already unable to send this type of module into space. The design must also be reviewed. One of the limitations of growing on the Moon is protecting yourself from radiation. It is therefore impossible to have a module with a transparent membrane. »

Earth before space

In short, there is still work and security for more than five years. “But this is normal, Alexis Paille continues. The reflection is just beginning, and Interstellar’s as competitors’ projects are still immature. It is unlikely that these culture modules will be needed on the Moon or Mars before 2035.”

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

These modules promise to avoid some of these impacts. Recycling of water and collection of C02 – one ton on average per year per years – are not the only advantages that Interstellar Lab highlights. “It also means increases in agricultural yields, less used land, no pollution …,” boasts Barbara Bellivisi. And it can be implemented anywhere and quickly. There is still the question of the expected product volumes: “About five tons per year on average per BioPod”, says Barabara Bellivisi. Not enough to replace crops in the 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 prove useful. Including with a view to producing food “where the soil is too damaged or where there is a lack of space”, begins Barabara Bellivisi. Interstellar Lab is also considering the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, sectors that use many natural ingredients, including plants that grow far from their laboratories. Among the twelve plants already in the start-up’s catalog is the Madagascar periwinkle, which is grown in tropical and subtropical areas “and which contains two molecules that are used in the chemotherapeutic treatment of many forms of cancer”, states Barbara Bellivisi. Finally, Interstellar Lab does not forget scientific research, which could use BioPods to conserve plant species threatened with extinction or work on crop adaptation to climate change.

In short, there would be plenty to do. Barbara Bellivisi says she already has 200 BioPod pre-orders. “We want to build ten more in 2023, but the idea is to be able to produce 100 a year very quickly”. This is the entire economic model of Interstellar Lab: sell as many BioPods as possible to “Earth-based” customers to continue dreaming of space. But there again, Alexis Paillet asks to see. “This BioPod is very designer, but not that different from what Agricool (another French start-up) did by growing in converted maritime containers,” he points out.

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