Author Topic: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?  (Read 5309 times)

Offline CuddlyRocket

The following Interesting Engineering article caught my eye: This Farming Company Hopes to Tackle World Hunger With Indoor Agriculture principally because the strapline included "They are already serving fresh produce to SpaceX and others in Silicon Valley."

Now this could be just another article about indoor agriculture, with the writers using SpaceX to sex the article up a bit! And although it talks about Elon Musk inspiring "innovative companies with noble causes", it doesn't mean either he or SpaceX is directly involved here, even if SpaceX is indeed one of Local Roots' many customers (SpaceX likes to keep its engineers well-fed, especially in an environmentally friendly manner!).

However, indoor agriculture is a necessity for a Mars colony, and desirable even for early missions. SpaceX doesn't want to develop all this stuff itself, but it does have an interest in seeing it developed. And SpaceX has seen the benefits of shifting development costs onto third parties - for instance testing powered landings during commercial launches. Helping such companies develop, in desired directions, might be an efficient use of resources.

Obviously any early food production unit will need to be relatively small, self-contained and to minimise power and water requirements. The article talks about Local Roots growing "almost any type of crop, year round", in 320 foot squared "propriety pods" called "TerraFarms". And then it gets rhapsodic! :

Quote
Respected and idolized Elon Musk has created brands that impacted the world for the better. Some of his projects include the Mars-bound SpaceX program, environmentally friendly Solar City, and the elegant but powerful Tesla super electric car. Musk is always pursuing projects that serve the world and humanity. Elon's goals include reducing global warming through sustainable energy production and consumption and reducing the risk of human extinction by making human life multi-planetary. Projects like Local Roots will help facilitate his vision.

This could just be a case of Elon-worship. And perhaps by the journalist rather than Local Roots. And the latter has an interest here because it's currently raising money (it "will deploy more than 100 new TerraFarms in 2018 and move into an even more technically advanced 165,000-square-foot manufacturing and headquarters in Vernon, California. The companies series A financing is expected to end in 2018). But alternatively, either SpaceX or Elon could be an investor, or maybe encouraging development by way of granting generous contracts as NASA did with commercial cargo to the ISS. Perhaps the journalist has heard of something in the wind?

Comments?

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #1 on: 12/17/2017 06:05 AM »
Logically consistent inferences you've made.

The article is a puff piece so it's hard to discern how much is actually happening but it makes a lot of sense for SpaceX or Elon personally, to be interested, or facilitating certain development directions, or invested.

SpaceX has a reputation for vertical manufacturing integration but this is far afield of their core so it makes a lot of sense they'd seek a good partner for this.
"I think it would be great to be born on Earth and to die on Mars. Just hopefully not at the point of impact." -Elon Musk
"We're a little bit like the dog who caught the bus" - Musk after CRS-8 S1 successfully landed on ASDS OCISLY

Offline Cheapchips

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #2 on: 12/17/2017 07:07 AM »

Local Roots isn't the only company doing this.  Elon's brother, Kimbal, is involved in the more satisfyingly named Square Roots. https://www.squarerootsgrow.com

I'm sure they'll be family conversations about cargo container farming.

Offline john smith 19

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #3 on: 12/17/2017 07:13 AM »
Logically consistent inferences you've made.

The article is a puff piece so it's hard to discern how much is actually happening but it makes a lot of sense for SpaceX or Elon personally, to be interested, or facilitating certain development directions, or invested.

SpaceX has a reputation for vertical manufacturing integration but this is far afield of their core so it makes a lot of sense they'd seek a good partner for this.
You'll note they make great play on how little water and herbicide is used, basically because it's a closed cycle system and in principle you close the boxes to keep pollen from stray plants outs.

But they don't say a word on the electricity bill.

And on Mars electricity will be as cheap (or expensive) as water. 

The NASA estimate for the power needed to grow plants under LED lighting is 42.5KW per person.
That's 4.25MW of solar capacity for a nominal 100 passengers of each BFS to Mars that has to be installed
just to support that crew and a solar farm that has to grow by that amount with every trip.

That suggests that finding ways to grow under natural (or some sort of hybrid) lighting arrangement would be a really good idea, unless you have a large size nuclear reactor handy. A naval reactor would be good for  about 13-14 fully loaded BFS's.
BFS. The worlds first Methane fueled FFORSC engined CFRP structured A380 sized aerospaceplane tail sitter capable of flying in Earth and Mars atmospheres. BFR. The worlds biggest Methane fueled FFORSC engined CFRP structured booster for BFS. First flight to Mars by end of 2022. Forward looking statements. T&C apply. Believe no one. Run your own numbers. So, you are going to Mars to start a better life? Picture it in your mind. Now say what it is out loud.

Offline docmordrid

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #4 on: 12/17/2017 09:01 AM »
Logically consistent inferences you've made.

The article is a puff piece so it's hard to discern how much is actually happening but it makes a lot of sense for SpaceX or Elon personally, to be interested, or facilitating certain development directions, or invested.

SpaceX has a reputation for vertical manufacturing integration but this is far afield of their core so it makes a lot of sense they'd seek a good partner for this.
>
The NASA estimate for the power needed to grow plants under LED lighting is 42.5KW per person.
>
>
That suggests that finding ways to grow under natural (or some sort of hybrid) lighting arrangement would be a really good idea, unless you have a large size nuclear reactor handy. A naval reactor would be good for  about 13-14 fully loaded BFS's.

1) greenhouse

2) light pipes for underground

3) freight container gardens use about  30,000 kWh/year (LED lighting & environmental), 10 gallons of H2O/day and average ~75 lbs of lettuce a week. Capable of growing many crops & herbs.
« Last Edit: 12/17/2017 09:09 AM by docmordrid »
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Offline Hotblack Desiato

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #5 on: 12/17/2017 09:53 AM »
Logically consistent inferences you've made.

The article is a puff piece so it's hard to discern how much is actually happening but it makes a lot of sense for SpaceX or Elon personally, to be interested, or facilitating certain development directions, or invested.

SpaceX has a reputation for vertical manufacturing integration but this is far afield of their core so it makes a lot of sense they'd seek a good partner for this.
>
The NASA estimate for the power needed to grow plants under LED lighting is 42.5KW per person.
>
>
That suggests that finding ways to grow under natural (or some sort of hybrid) lighting arrangement would be a really good idea, unless you have a large size nuclear reactor handy. A naval reactor would be good for  about 13-14 fully loaded BFS's.

1) greenhouse

2) light pipes for underground

3) freight container gardens use about  30,000 kWh/year (LED lighting & environmental), 10 gallons of H2O/day and average ~75 lbs of lettuce a week. Capable of growing many crops & herbs.

Very interesting numbers, and a very interesting concept.

30,000kWh/a also means, that most of it will be waste heat (LEDs operate at 30-40% efficiency, means 20 MWh will be heat), not all light falls onto the plants... or will be consumed by them via photosynthesis... another 5-7 MWh... but on the other hand: heat will have its own value on Mars, just because it's so cold.

Regarding water consumption: Yes, that it for that closed system, that is not so closed because the plants will leave it (as food). But the Martian base is a closed system on its own, regaining most of the water bound in the plants.

Will be very interesting.

Offline CuddlyRocket

Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #6 on: 12/17/2017 11:05 AM »

Local Roots isn't the only company doing this.  Elon's brother, Kimbal, is involved in the more satisfyingly named Square Roots. https://www.squarerootsgrow.com

I'm sure they'll be family conversations about cargo container farming.

It would be problematic to deal with a company belonging to a director - conflicts of interest etc. Cleaner to deal with a third party. But I agree with you about the conversations!

Found this video about Local Roots on YouTube: .
At 0:55 it says that "they have now teamed up with SpaceX"!

That suggests that finding ways to grow under natural (or some sort of hybrid) lighting arrangement would be a really good idea...

1) greenhouse

You could possibly make a lot of the container out of glass - perhaps the explosion-proof armor glass that Tesla has handily created!
« Last Edit: 12/17/2017 11:05 AM by CuddlyRocket »

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #7 on: 12/17/2017 12:52 PM »

Local Roots isn't the only company doing this.  Elon's brother, Kimbal, is involved in the more satisfyingly named Square Roots. https://www.squarerootsgrow.com

I'm sure they'll be family conversations about cargo container farming.

It would be problematic to deal with a company belonging to a director - conflicts of interest etc. Cleaner to deal with a third party. But I agree with you about the conversations!
SpaceX isn't publicly held, so I don't see this as an issue.
"I think it would be great to be born on Earth and to die on Mars. Just hopefully not at the point of impact." -Elon Musk
"We're a little bit like the dog who caught the bus" - Musk after CRS-8 S1 successfully landed on ASDS OCISLY

Offline chalz

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #8 on: 12/26/2017 11:32 AM »
This is nothing more than brand synergy, right? One of these containers in the parking lot for the canteen staff to use once in a while.

It would be great if they were looking to incorporate plants into the atmospheric conditioning for the BFR but it seems unlikely at this stage.

Offline john smith 19

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #9 on: 01/02/2018 07:28 AM »
2) light pipes for underground
I think this is the key to lowering the power requirement. Some sort of passive system. Of course it depends on how worried people are about surface radiation effects on plant growth.
Quote from: docmordrid
3) freight container gardens use about  30,000 kWh/year (LED lighting & environmental), 10 gallons of H2O/day and average ~75 lbs of lettuce a week. Capable of growing many crops & herbs.
That is an astonishingly low number given the NASA estimate of 42Kw/person. Even an 8 hr growing day every day would be 1222640 hrs, IE about 4x larger.
[EDIT Oops. That should be 122640 Kwh. Thanks to kdhilliard for spotting that ]

I note that on Mars I doubt there will be no "waste heat."

It will be heat that the settlers have not found a use for yet.
« Last Edit: 01/02/2018 02:52 PM by john smith 19 »
BFS. The worlds first Methane fueled FFORSC engined CFRP structured A380 sized aerospaceplane tail sitter capable of flying in Earth and Mars atmospheres. BFR. The worlds biggest Methane fueled FFORSC engined CFRP structured booster for BFS. First flight to Mars by end of 2022. Forward looking statements. T&C apply. Believe no one. Run your own numbers. So, you are going to Mars to start a better life? Picture it in your mind. Now say what it is out loud.

Offline speedevil

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #10 on: 01/03/2018 03:53 PM »
The NASA estimate for the power needed to grow plants under LED lighting is 42.5KW per person.

That depends at what estimate you look at, a lot of these experiments don't care at all about power use, and much of the power reported may be air conditioning power. In some of them, it is quite inefficient - by todays standards lights.

Potatos, grown in 24h light, at 75W/m^2 of the right sort of LEDs can produce enough to feed one person in 39m^2 of field, for a total of 3kW of electrical power in, 39m^2 of area. At 5kW of light, you can do it in 25m^2. (this can be stacked) (2800kcal/day)

This is at 200umol/s/m^2 of PAR, which with modern LEDs over 39m^2 comes out to 3kW or so. (yes, plant researchers use moles of light, it's annoying, but somewhat needed)
 
https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19880002887.pdf gives this latter figure as 7.2kW for 23m^2, using 20 year old lights.

Some figures for other crops are notably worse than for potato, in the range of ~50% this efficiency for wheat, tomatoes, ...

This comes out to perhaps 5kW for mixed staple crops, heavy in potato.
If you add another 1.5kW, as pigs like potatoes, and have conversion efficiencies in the 9% range, you can have 5% of the calories from pork.

This only works if you can cheaply dump the heat to the environment, and do not have to expend energy heating.

Other references I find give O2 generation area as about double minimal crop area, which might take you to pretty much worst case 10kW, counting the pigs.


Online Dave G

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #11 on: 01/13/2018 03:36 PM »
SpaceX has a reputation for vertical manufacturing integration but this is far afield of their core so it makes a lot of sense they'd seek a good partner for this.
Agreed.

Elon sometimes compares SpaceX to the Transcontinental Railroad companies in the late 1800s.

It's easy to imagine that executives of these railroad companies would also invest in various other Western U.S. enterprises, even though the railroad company itself was solely focused on transportation.

Offline Vultur

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #12 on: 01/24/2018 04:46 AM »
Of course it depends on how worried people are about surface radiation effects on plant growth.

In the Cold War era there was a bunch of research on radiation effects on plant growth - plants turn out to be pretty resilient to radiation. IIRC they were able to grow various crops just fine despite doses that would outright kill humans. I don't know how comparable the dose rates (acute vs chronic, etc.) were though -- they were thinking nuclear fallout not space radiation...

Offline Vultur

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #13 on: 01/24/2018 04:52 AM »
Some figures for other crops are notably worse than for potato


Yeah, even in natural light farming on Earth potatoes are absurdly efficient in terms of calories/acre -- Andy Weir knew what he was doing when he picked them for The Martian...

Energy use is going to be pretty dependent on what kind of light you use  - green is wasted (reflected) and blue is only partially used since only photon energy equivalent to a far-end red photon is collected. Red is most efficiently absorbed.

(This always seemed weird to me since the sun's peak emission is in the green - but I think plants in nature are generally not light limited.)

Offline docmordrid

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #14 on: 01/24/2018 05:04 AM »
Some figures for other crops are notably worse than for potato


Yeah, even in natural light farming on Earth potatoes are absurdly efficient in terms of calories/acre -- Andy Weir knew what he was doing when he picked them for The Martian...

>

To varying degrees I believe you'll find this true of most cultivated members of Solanaceae,  the Nightshades. Potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers including chilies (my favorite ;) ), some spices, tobacco, groundcherries (Physalis), tomatillos and many others. We get an insane amount of peppers & tomatoes, giveaway quantities, from relatively small patches.
« Last Edit: 01/24/2018 05:10 AM by docmordrid »
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Offline speedevil

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Re: SpaceX working on food production for Mars?
« Reply #15 on: 01/24/2018 05:45 AM »
Some figures for other crops are notably worse than for potato


Yeah, even in natural light farming on Earth potatoes are absurdly efficient in terms of calories/acre -- Andy Weir knew what he was doing when he picked them for The Martian...

Energy use is going to be pretty dependent on what kind of light you use  - green is wasted (reflected) and blue is only partially used since only photon energy equivalent to a far-end red photon is collected. Red is most efficiently absorbed.

(This always seemed weird to me since the sun's peak emission is in the green - but I think plants in nature are generally not light limited.)

The 75W/m^2 I quoted above was to equate to 200umol/day PAR, which equates to about 75W input power into the most efficient LEDs available right now. (this is enough for certain cultivars of potatoes to give a good yield at 24h)
It's of the order of 35W/m^2 of actual photons.

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