The Arkansas Space Grant Consortium board voted to fund Dr. Gija Geme, Dr. Tim Schroeder of chemistry, and Dr. Copie Moore of agriculture on a joint venture to explore the feasibility of growing crops such as soybeans, corn, lettuce, kale, and more, in a Mars soil simulant that is improved with fertilizer to add micronutrients. The team received $50,000 from NASA funding through Arkansas Space Grant Consortium in the spring of 2023.
This project aims to measure heavy metal uptake by plants using Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) Spectroscopy analysis. The soil on Mars is almost entirely made up of mineral matter with small amounts of water and no organic matter. NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, showed that the mineral matter in Martian soil comes from the weathered volcanic rock of mineralogy similar to weathered basaltic soils of volcanic origin in Hawaii. Martian soil is reddish and sandy overall because it contains a significant amount of iron oxides (rust) throughout the planet’s surface since global dust storms move and redistribute the soil. The toxically high concentration of heavy metals in the soil will be reflected by higher concentrations of metals in plants.
Dr. Adbel Bachri, dean of the College of Science and Engineering, stated, “The proposed research is very relevant to NASA plant researchers’ Exploration of Deep-Space Food Crops and will contribute to answering an important question: Is a Martian greenhouse possible? Bachri also noted that the Mars Exploration Program specifically aims to explore Mars as a possible destination for the survival of humankind in the future.
This unique project will involve undergraduate students from both departments as they simulate the soil of Mars, grow crops, and test for the presence of heavy metals in them. The acquisition of an ICP instrument through this grant will enhance the Natural Resources Research Center (NRRC) service to local area specialty chemical industries and boost its capability for water testing and soil chemistry.
SAU NRRC is an approximately 3,000-square-foot building and is a core facility funded jointly by Southern Arkansas University and a grant from the Department of Commerce through the Arkansas Economic Development Administration. The NRRC consists of seven separate laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art analytical instrumentation to meet the needs of industries, public agencies, and private citizens in southwest Arkansas. NRRC is also ADEQ-certified for water and soil analysis and provides chemistry consulting and research and development services via analytical methods. The NRRC currently provides waste-water testing to the cities of Magnolia, AR, and Waldo, AR. The NRRC also contracts projects from surrounding specialty chemicals industries in Southwest AR.