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3D Printed BioPods Could Grow Plants Anywhere, on Earth and in Space

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Unveiled at the 2021 Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the design for the first inflatable plant cultivation pod holds a lot of potential for expanding sustainable farming on Earth and in space. Created by French-American company Interstellar Lab, these advanced environmentally-controlled greenhouses, called BioPods, have been designed to grow over 300 different fruits, vegetables, flowers, and plants anywhere. Now, the innovative company has partnered with large-scale 3D printing startup Soliquid to build BioPods for use on Earth and in space, relying on additive manufacturing (AM) technologies.

Through the deal, Interstellar Lab will develop an entirely new 3D printing strategy to manufacture the inflatable membrane and all the material systems for the BioPod. The company also aims to 3D print well its Mars simulators, dubbed Experimental Bioregenerative Station (EBios), designed as the first closed-loop, environment-controlled villages on Earth. This “exciting new adventure,” as Soliquid described it, will leverage its six-axis robot and extruder to 3D print complex parts in suspension, without support, faster, and with less material.

Backed by Leonard, VINCI‘s future of construction acceleration program, Soliquid is focused on large-scale suspension 3D printing for architecture, engineering, construction, and design industries. The firm has developed a patented system to 3D print concrete, resins, and other materials in a controlled environment with a sustainable and efficient process.

Soliquid’s Co-Founder Jim Rhoné, now Interstellar Lab’s Chief Product Officer (CPO), and Interstellar Lab Founder Barbara Belvisi. Image courtesy of Interstellar Lab.

By scaling the production of BioPods through AM, Interstellar Lab will meet the growing demand on Earth. Founded in 2018 by venture capital expert Barbara Belvisi after several months of incubation at NASA Ames Space Portal, Interstellar Lab now has a team of 15 former SpaceX, Disney, Airbus, and Thales employees. As part of the agreement, Soliquid’s Co-Founder Jim Rhoné has joined the group as Chief Product Officer (CPO), supervising BioPod’s product development from design to delivery while overseeing the manufacturing process.

Rhoné’s latest professional career move comes as no surprise, considering he was already working as an Architect and Computational Designer for Interstellar Lab’s Paris headquarters since September 2020. Rhoné has described his new role as a “dream” in a company where he shares the conviction that the technologies currently being developed for space will help preserve Earth. “Space and ocean explorations are intimately linked and, as we start revealing both of their mysteries, Soliquid will bring the best of its expertise to help turn Barbara’s vision into a reality. Fascinating times and challenges ahead.”

Interstellar Lab’s environmentally-controlled modules for sustainable farming on Earth and life-support in space. Image courtesy of Interstellar Lab.

Focused on providing space-grade technology to grow plants efficiently, Interstellar Lab’s BioPods for sustainable farming on Earth and life-support in space could be pivotal for upcoming crewed space missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. For decades, NASA has been heavily involved in advancing applications for growing food crops in space. In the late 1980s, space crop research gained serious momentum. At the time, the agency was interested in methods for aeroponic crop production in space and hydroponic systems for watering and fertilizing plants in microgravity, among others.

Although many of those experiments fell through, today, the agency needs to move quickly as upcoming space missions like the Artemis Moon landing program are slated to happen sometime in the next decade. With several plans for humans to explore and colonize space in the works, including deep-space missions like a trip to an asteroid or Mars, space farming becomes less of a novelty and more of a necessity.

Interstellar Lab plans to build a utopian Martian village on the Mojave desert. Image courtesy of Interstellar Lab.

The BioPods have been designed using the Dassault Systèmes3D Experience platform, and Interstellar Labs promises that its first model showcasing will take place near Paris sometime in autumn 2021. The innovative creation works as a standalone system using advanced crop cultivation technology to foster bio-diversity, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, close out the water loop and reduce the land need factor by 100. Expected to become the “future of sustainable plant cultivation,” the BioPod’s inflatable membrane technology will be 3D printed with high-performance materials that the company expects will result in high insulation properties.

Potentially working as fully regenerative habitats that automatically regulate air, pressure, water, temperature, and humidity, the pods could create ideal environmental conditions for humans and plants off-Earth. They can be used alone or can be attached to form modules. By combining modules, the company believes it can support life for larger groups and become a framework for sustainable cities on Earth and in the future in space.

In fact, Interstellar Lab has also been designing the first EBios village in the Mojave desert and thinking about the second one for NASA space-based government research in Cape Canaveral, Florida, near the Kennedy Space Center. In this forthcoming context, the partnership with Soliquid will allow Interstellar Lab to launch the development of innovative inflatable 3D printed membrane and test 3D printed regolith structures for lunar In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) applications of the BioPod in partnership with space agencies.

Soliquid’s 3D printing technology. Image courtesy of Soliquid.

By employing a reusable matrix and topology optimization workflows, Soliquid’s technology can help restore fragile ecosystems by 3D printing biomimetic constructive systems that foster the return of life and blooming of biodiversity. As a testament to what they can do, their latest artificial reef project Bathyreef, supported by the Mediterranean Institute of Oceanography (Mio), is designed to be a sanctuary for marine life.

With one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions coming from inefficient, traditional farming methods, Interstellar Lab’s new modules for sustainable farming could accelerate the transition to environmental regenerative solutions on Earth by creating highly efficient integrated food production, water, and waste recycling systems. The BioPod’s interior climate, completely environmentally controlled and sealed from exterior contaminants like pests or pollution, would enable the growth of the highest quality food in any environment.

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