Imagine having sustainable, cost-efficient greenhouses in the far north growing fruits and vegetables.
Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are trying to make this a reality.
"We have an increasing population on one hand … and because of climate change we are experiencing environmental instability," said Nazanin Charchi, a PhD student in chemical engineering at the U of S.
"So it's important to develop a stable, sustainable and more importantly a predictable food supply."
Charchi is using the Canadian Light Source synchrotron on the U of S campus to develop a method to remove the chemical ethylene from the air, to help make a greenhouse viable in harsh environments like Canada's north.
"Basically when the plants grow they produce ethylene," said U of S professor Jafar Soltan, who has worked for years in the area of treating polluted air and is overseeing Charchi's work.
Soltan said ethylene works like a growth hormone.
"For adults growth hormones are good, but we don't want to give hormones to a six-year-old because they hit puberty sooner than they are supposed to. The same with plants."
In warm climates, excessive ethylene can easily be removed by opening the windows. That's not an option in colder, harsher areas.
If you could somehow remove the excess ethylene without opening a window during cold winters, self-contained greenhouses become more cost efficient and sustainable.
And that's where Charchi's research comes in.
Charchi is using the Canadian Light Source synchrotron to develop a method, or catalyst, to remove ethylene from greenhouses without needing outside air.
"The biggest impact of this research is on reducing energy consumption in those self-contained greenhouses," Soltan said. "The technology that we have removes ethylene in the air inside the greenhouse so you do not need to bring in a lot of air from outside."
That offers the tantalizing prospect of making these self-contained very energy efficient.
On top of that, Charchi said being able to remove the excess ethylene means greater longevity for fruits and vegetables that goes bad faster because of ethylene.
"This technology could make greenhouses more environmentally sustainable and less expensive to run. As a result, we could have more food grown in greenhouses in cold regions like Canada and more food security for our families," Soltan said.
Charchi said they have been successful in being able to use a catalyst to remove ethylene in the lab.
She said the next step is to partner with the air conditioning and Hvac industry to develop a commercial application for a new generation of greenhouses.
Soltan said he foresees the technology being in the form of a small box, similar to a fresh air exchanger, that would be added to the air circulation system.
"It would just continuously get rid of the ethylene and reduce the need to bring in outside air," he said.
The technology could be adapted to homes and other commercial buildings to reduce energy consumption in those places.
When the air is circulating inside a building the technology would get rid of the solvents and smelly chemicals without having to bring in a lot of cold air.
Soltan can even see the technology being used in space.
"If you want to grow something in space or travel to Mars or something you want to have a suitable environment for these plants to grow," he said.
"We are taking out these hormones that are produced by mature plants and can harm the baby plants. If you remove the hormone you can have a healthy environment for plants to grow, that can be a new way for specially conditioned greenhouses."