South Pole Semi-Automated Hydroponic Growth Chamber

… or what we call the Greenhouse.

Not only the growth chamber, but a lovely and cosy anteroom with a couch and a telephone; this makes the greenhouse one of the more private of the public places. It's a nice place to have a glass of wine with a pal or two.

Not only the growth chamber, but a lovely and cosy anteroom with a couch and a telephone; this makes the greenhouse one of the more private of the public places. It’s a nice place to have a glass of wine with a pal or two.

On the first floor, over by Polemart, is the Greenhouse. It’s been shut down as a cost-saving measure over the summer under the now-laughable assumption that we’d be getting freshies by plane and wouldn’t need to grow them here. Growing plants in one of the coldest, driest, most baren places on earth is only justifiable for two reasons: morale and science.

As to morale, I can report that a month and a half without freshies hasn’t been a great hardship for me, but as I confessed in the past, I took more than my fair share of salad when it was available for 15 minutes. I’m not proud of that, so you know. I’m not sure what nine months without would do to my morale or intestines. There’s also the boost of seeing green things, breathing air that plants have used, hanging out in a place with more than five percent humidity, and smelling plants.

As to science, the Greenhouse is an outpost the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. They are working on growing plants in hostile environments, like the moon, mars, and outer space.

Among many, many things, the Antarctic Treaty forbids the import of soil; everything here grows in some inorganic substrate. [There are a few potted plants in these photos. I have avoided asking the greenhouse manager, Lane, what happened there. Perhaps some soil already on the continent.] Just last night there was a lecture [from which I took notes both few and poor] followed by a tour and some volunteer work.

This is about 2/3 of the greenhouse. Tall climbers grow down the middle -- and up -- and smaller leafy things grow along the two sides.

This is about 2/3 of the greenhouse. Tall climbers grow down the middle — and up — and smaller leafy things grow along the two sides.


The middle lane has room for climbers, like beans, tomatoes, eggplants, and melons. There’s also a climbing net on the back wall which hasn’t been very successful in the past. This year Lane hopes to have passionfruit grow on it. Along the two side walls are trays that roll back to provide access, but roll out to have light hit plants rather than the floor. Most of the plants along the sides are radishes, lettuces, kale, herbs, and edible flowers. Leafy greens provide the best return on biomass, and when the greenhouse is running smoothly, there are fresh salads at lunch and dinner, and the old habits — not eating much of the greens to make sure there are enough for everyone — have to be discouraged to avoid throwing greens away. In the end, assuming that fuel costs about $4.50 per litre, greens cost about $50 per pound. When there are planes flying, it’s cheaper to just fly them in directly.

These little seedlings will grow up to be lunch and dinner.

These little seedlings will grow up to be lunch and dinner.


At the post-lecture work-party we planted seeds in small rock-wool cubes. They sit in a nutrient solution and soak it all up to grow big and strong. Along the way they also suck up carbon dioxide, turn that into oxygen, and need lots of light. Lettuces would be happy to have light all the time, but tomatoes would just die, so compromises get made, and all the plants are moderately happy. Light, heat, nutrients, and CO2 are all controlled and monitored. This year Lane is adding an ethane scrubber, which should make the tomatoes happier.

Most seeds sprout, so I was surprised that we put more than one seed into each rock wool seed cup. Another task was going through the things that had been planted a week ago and transplanting sprouts that were sharing cups. That seemed to be a lot of work, but volunteer labor is free, and rock wool cups are only nearly free.

The new LED lights are maybe 20% cheaper to run than the sodium vapor lamps. But I'm kind of making that up -- I don't really remember. The yellow tint in the photos isn't an app, but the yellow from the sodium lamps.

The new LED lights are maybe 20% cheaper to run than the sodium vapor lamps. But I’m kind of making that up — I don’t really remember. The yellow tint in the photos isn’t an app, but the yellow from the sodium lamps.


Lighting and heat are the two big energy costs to the greenhouse. I should have taken better notes. I think the split is pretty even. But since we’re heating the station anyway, nothing wrong with making the greenhouse a bit warmer and letting the heat come up through the rest of the station.

I’m sorry I won’t be here to harvest and eat. Lane is hoping that the meal after the last plane flies out — somewhere around February 14th — he will have freshies from the greenhouse. I share that hope; the winter-overs have a long stretch ahead of them, and enough hardships. Enough reason to get a few luxuries as well.

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One response to “South Pole Semi-Automated Hydroponic Growth Chamber

  1. Grow room are useful when you need a controlled environment for growing plants. This setup also provides protection against pests. Rockwood is a fantastic growing medium with perfect PH value just like Coco coir. Advanced Nutrients provides really nice tips on Growing medium and grow tents. Visit http://ow.ly/hsLll for information on it.

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