How to grow leafy greens on Mars

8 May 2023

Sending lettuce into space might sound like a scene from a sci-fi film, but one Docklands startup is planning for interplanetary growth. It could also change the face of local agriculture.

Before you can grow leafy greens on Mars, you need to test the prototype of your new space-saving modular system. Ideally somewhere slick that has an impact on potential partners.

For startup founder Nadun Hennayaka from GAIA Project Australia, Docklands was the perfect place to refine his inventive crop cultivation method for leafy greens.

To save valuable space, it expands as plants grow.

“Setting up a display farm inside the CBD is an impressive way to show people how we can improve our urban agriculture methods, on Earth and in space,” Nadun said.

A person standing in front of a neon-lit planter box.
Startup founder Nadun Hennayaka in Docklands

As part of NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge in 2021, GAIA designed its Intelligent Crop Cultivation Module to NASA specifications. It won the National Innovation Award.

Affectionately called Leafy 2.0, it’s a futuristic-looking two cubic-metre system designed to grow enough vegetables to support four astronauts on a three-year mission.

“We chose Docklands because we’re developing space technology, so we were looking for somewhere beautiful to impress investors and partners who are coming from overseas to look at our prototype.”

Pink LED light beams across the crop, making the frosted windows glow and adding intrigue at street level.

While GAIA’s gaze might be fixed beyond the horizon, the team also hopes its invention will be useful on Earth to bring humans and the biosphere back into balance.

Australia may be the food bowl for the region right now, but we need to update our farming practices, according to GAIA Project’s environmental research analyst Mike Bridges.

“Earth has around 60 more harvest cycles left before the soil is not useable again, and even less in Australia where the soil is ancient. That’s pretty scary,” Mike said.

A person clipping lettuce leaves in a hydroponic room.
GAIA Project’s Mike Bridges. Photo: Melissa Hobbs

A passion for sustainability compels Nadun and Mike to reimagine agriculture.

An engineer by trade, Nadun started his career in renewable energy. After working in greenhouse and vertical agriculture, he set out to find a less energy-intensive way to grow crops.

“Our cultivation system is a world first,” Nadun said.

“We only use a tenth of the land, 60 to 70 per cent less fertiliser. No insecticide or pesticide. And 95 per cent less water.”

The next step for the GAIA Project is to scale up to a commercial-sized prototype that showcases how the technology can be applied in urban, rural and international settings alike.

“Whether it’s to grow leafy greens in space or for urban agriculture, we need to build efficient, robust solutions,” Nadun said.

Start, grow and go global

The team at Invest Melbourne supports business growth with expert advisers ready to help innovative companies like Gaia unlock and reach their full potential.

Many local traders want to expand into international markets. City of Melbourne is laying the foundation for their success as business confidence rises, according to Lord Mayor Sally Capp.

“We’re giving our business community the tools to explore new and emerging global markets – creating more jobs and boosting the city’s economy,” the Lord Mayor said.

Two new advisers recently joined Invest Melbourne through the national TradeStart network – which assists small and medium-sized businesses to identify and secure trade opportunities across global markets, in partnership with Austrade.

This will help support the growth of local businesses, as well as providing a boost to the City of Melbourne economy.

Aside from scaling up, the other next step for the GAIA Project is to test how lettuces hold up under the influence of micro gravity and zero gravity.

But that’s a story for another day.

What matters to you in your local community? A neighbourhood Future Melbourne Committee meeting was held in Docklands on Tuesday 16 May 2023. Watch on demand.

Leafy green plants inside a metal hydroponic machine.
GAIA display farm in Docklands

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