Blog: Michelle RussellIs outer space the answer to more sustainable cotton?

Michelle Russell | 31 July 2017

Are space-based experiments the answer to making cotton a more sustainable fibre on Earth? The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) has partnered with US retail giant Target Corporation to find out.

The cotton sustainability challenge, sponsored by Target and with funding of US$1m, will give researchers and innovators the opportunity to look at ways of utilising the International Space Station (ISS) US National Laboratory to make crop production on Earth more effective and sustainable.

“Cotton is a natural plant fire produced in many countries and one of the most important raw materials required for the production of textiles and clothing,” the creators say. “Cotton cultivation requires sustainable access to natural resources like water that are increasingly threatened. This challenge seeks to engage the creative power of the research community to leverage the ISS National Lab to innovate and generate ideas that will improve the utilisation of natural resources for sustainable cotton production.”

According to CASIS, the world produces more than 25m tons of cotton annually. It represents nearly half of the fibre used to make clothes and other textiles globally. It can take between 2-5,000 gallons of water to produce two pounds of cotton – about one T-shirt and a pair of jeans.

While an unusual way of assisting in crop production, the creators of the challenge point to a number of advantages of using the ISS, including its high-altitude vantage point, which “provides the agricultural community unique perspectives on sustainable crop production and water usage.”

CASIS also points to the station’s micro-gravity environment, which it says researchers can use to study how cotton crops respond to different environments and conditions.

The creator say that through the funding opportunity, CASIS and NASA will facilitate on-orbit access to the ISS National Lab to advance cotton sustainability solutions that may include projects in plant biology, water technology or remote sensing technologies.

Researchers are encouraged to submit concepts focused on fluid dynamics, fluid flow, cotton or plant germination, different cultivars of cotton genetics, water uptake and gene expression. Data generated from the research experiments selected will be provided to the public, with the hope that the discoveries made can be leveraged by other researchers and product developers.

“The ISS National Laboratory provides researchers an unmatched ability to look at variables in new and novel manners,” says CASIS director of commercial innovation Cynthia Bouthot. “Additionally, the ability to partner with Target to enhance global humanitarian efforts and gain insight into ways microgravity can improve cotton sustainability will bring great value and benefit for life on Earth.”

The challenge will run from 1 September through 1 November.

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