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Diffusion Aspects of Designing Porous Growth Media for Earth and Space

Deepagoda, T.K.K. Chamindu, Moldrup, Per, Jensen, Maria P., Jones, Scott B., Jonge, Lis Wollesen de, Schjonning, Per, Scow, Kate, Hopmans, Jan W., Rolston, Dennis E., Kawamoto, Ken, Komatsu, Toshiko
Soil Science Society of America journal 2012 v.76 no.5 pp. 1564-1578
air, culture media, diffusivity, electrical conductivity, growing media, models, nutrients, oxygen, physical properties, plant growth, porous media, rhizosphere, roots, solutes, volcanic ash soils, Japan
Growing plants in extraterrestrial environments, for example on a space station or in a future lunar or Martian outpost, is a challenge that has attracted increasing interest over the last few decades. Most of the essential plant needs for optimal growth (air, water, and nutrient supply, and mechanical support) are closely linked with the basic physical properties of the growth media. Diffusion is the main process whereby oxygen and nutrients are supplied to plant roots, and gas and solute diffusivity are the key parameters controlling the diffusive movement of oxygen and nutrients in the root zone. As one among several essential aspects of optimal porous media design for plant growth, this study presents a diffusion-based characterization of four commercial, aggregated growth media. To account for the observed large percolation threshold for gas diffusivity in the selected media, an inactive pore and density corrected (IPDC) model was developed and excellently described measured gas diffusivity in both inter- and intraaggregate pore regions. A strong relation (r2 = 0.98) between percolation threshold for gas diffusivity and mean particle (aggregate) diameter was found and suggested to be used in future design models. Also, critical windows of diffusivity (CWD) was defined identifying the air content range where gas diffusivity (hence, oxygen supply) and solute diffusivity or the analogous electrical conductivity (hence, nutrient supply) are above pre-defined, critical minimum values. Assuming different critical values for gas diffusivity under terrestrial and Martian conditions, the four growth media were compared and it was found that one medium did not fulfill the pre-set criteria. Overall, the analyses suggested that particle (aggregate) sizes below 0.25 and above 5 mm should likely be avoided when designing safe plant growth media for space. The CWD concept was also applied to a natural volcanic ash soil (Nishi-Tokyo, Japan), and the natural soil was found competitive or better than the tested commercial growth media. This could bear large perspectives for Martian outpost missions, since NASA has found that Martian dust/soil mostly resembles volcanic ash soil among terrestrial materials.