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 Post subject: Wild Medicine and Fuel
PostPosted: Tue Apr 30, 2013 8:21 pm 
Broken Crown Panelist
Broken Crown Panelist

Joined: Sun Oct 21, 2012 1:59 pm
Posts: 15
How likely are we to use plants for non-edible reasons in a space colony? For example, using plants for medicine, fuels, and even toxins. I’m sure it is a subject that has been considered by NASA and other space enthusiasts, but it’s probably not at the forefront of thinking. For example, using plants for medicinal reasons is probably secondary in the thinking of health care for future space colonies, but we should consider it. By the time we have established a colony on Mars, Titan, or any other habitable world, I’m sure that we will have figured out ways to synthesize medicines. So why would we need plants? As with last month’s blog, I think there is room for plants playing many roles in this new world.

These colonists are going to need to be very efficient with what they bring and grow. If we are bringing plants purely for medicinal reasons, then they it need to a medicinal plant that has an active chemical that we cannot synthesize or isolate. Or, it needs to be a very special plant. At this point, let me say that I will not be discussing marijuana. Not because it isn’t an important plant with effective chemicals, but because I’m sure everyone assumes that any “relaxed” space colony will have some growing regardless of space in the colony.

At this point, most chemicals can be extracted/isolated, but in some “natural medicines” there may be interactions between chemicals/substances that cloud our understanding. This is the study of complexity at its finest, and these will be the questions/problems that future scientists/technologists will be studying. At this point, modern science has difficulty with complexity because of a reductionist paradigm. In experiments, we hold constant all and isolate one variable in order to understand the mechanism of the world. This has worked well for physics and even chemistry in the past, but biology, ecology, and social sciences are a study of complexity. If we are going to understand complexity we need to find methodologies to test our hypotheses. Hopefully future science investigations will have found a way to find evidence through powerful computational and statistical methods… but I diverge from the matter at hand.

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If we are growing medicinal plants on a future colony, then they will need to provide other benefits such as feed for animals, soil stabilizers, oxygenators, or just cost less than chemical synthesis of active ingredients. For examples, alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and red clover (Trifolium pratense) has a many medicinal properties, and can also serve as feed and as soil enricher/stabilizer for other crops.

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Besides medicine, many plants are being explored to serve as biofuels. We all remember the switch grass discussion during the George W. Bush years, but there are many plants that can be used to produce cellulosic ethanol. There is a relatively easy manner of extracting fuel from plants, but most of these highly fibrous plants don’t get used for other purposes. In the end, we may opt for organisms that can produce biofuels but are smaller or more contained.

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Algae may give us a bigger bang for our buck, since they are amazing efficient at converting carbon dioxide in biomass and chemical energy. On Earth, most of our oxygen is produced by tropical ocean algae (not trees). It seems that the smaller the photosynthetic organism, the more efficient they tend to be. When burned these algae still release carbon dioxide, but living algae efficiently absorb this carbon dioxide. This is the may reason so many people are exploring algae as a method for reduced carbon dioxide levels. In the end, this may be a large tropical pool that contains algae that is used for fuel, even food, and maybe fun (i.e. swimming). Now that’s good livin’!

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