Potatoes, Air, Dust, and AC

potato air dust ac

// Mars

“Doing the math, this won’t keep me from starving.

My best bet for making calories is potatoes. They grow prolifically and have a reasonable caloric content (770 calories per kilogram). I’m pretty sure the ones I have will germinate. Problem is I can’t grow enough of them. … Not even close.”

Andy Weir, the Martian[1]


In the most quintessential science fiction set on Mars, the Martian, the author Andy Weir doesn’t waste many pages before coining one of the most important human basic needs – food. By the end of the first chapter and all through the chapters from then on, he highlights the complexity and the critical role of agriculture, even when on Mars.

So why is it important?


// Earth

With the 7 billion (9.6 billion by 2050)[2], and the limited amount of arable lands, new strategies are currently underway to ensure the crop demands of the world population. Vertical farming technologies allow crops to grow without the need for natural soil or sunlight as well as reduce the overall agricultural footprint. Currently about 40% of the global land is dedicated to agriculture![3]Along with the growth of population is also the need for faster production. At Purdue University, the research around using pink and blue lights for growing has proven to yield crops in 80% of the normal growing time and with less energy than would a typical white-light indoor terrarium.[4] If farming can now be devoid of the soil or ground, then we can finally have a “floating garden of Babylon” – garden in the clouds!


// the Rover/Shuttle

Aside from food, we also need air, oxygen, to breathe in space. How do we harvest air? – one simple option is through photosynthesis. It’s no surprise that in many science fiction movies, such as Sunshine, the space shuttle is often shown to contain a garden as the space crew’s backup source of oxygen (with oxygen tanks being the primary source). Air is something we, Earthlings, take for granted because of our atmospheric shield. However, imagine being in a closed car for five hours with five other people also in the car. How long would it be before it becomes unbearably stuffy? The same can be said with the increasing population. Will we ever be out of oxygen?


// Beijing

With the daily smog level of a sand storm, it’s often surprising that the air still contains much oxygen for normal breathing. Perhaps we have enough oxygen, though with the growing number of human activities, much of that oxygen may become too convoluted with other air particulates. An artist by the name of Nut Brother, in attempt to visualize the level of pollution in the Beijing air, had vacuumed the air and compressed the residue into bricks.[5] Is filtration the way to ensure oxygen? Or are there other ways to produce oxygen? Can these vertical farms serve as the new building cores that can both harvest oxygen as well as food?

What’s even more bizarre is how Canada is able to harvest air from Banff, Alberta and ship this for Beijing residents! The company Vitality Air has bottled and sold air since 2014 – imagine, just about 400 years ago, humans first learned to harvest water in bottles. [6]


// Helsinki

The concept of harvesting heat is not uncommon. We’ve already witnessed this in a conventional heat recovery HVAC system or with ground heat sinks. But because heat is one of the easiest energy to lose, it becomes difficult as we go up in scale. Back in 2010, Helsinki has paved the way for heat recovery between the data center and housing.[7] The heat generated from the centers would in turn heat the water for the 500 homes in the area. Since then, Finland has served as the testing bed for similar experiments in Espoo (currently providing heat for 630 homes, with an expectancy of 1,500 homes in the near future).


In a way, cities have also become an incubator, where instead of produce, we harvest products, skills, finance, and data. In the case of Vitality Air, the harvest of air have also lead to a harvest in finance. Finland has also begun to synchronize these invisible harvest in human data and heat. We’ve now gone beyond the one-to-one correlation – one-farmer-one-potato scenario – to something of a multitude – one farmer can now equate to bags of potato chips, to online permaculture classrooms, to biotechnology, to carbon sequestration. It is rather odd, for a capitalistic society that we’re in, to only have scratched the surface on many of these more intangible resources…



[1] Weir, Andy. The Martian: A Novel. New York, N.Y: Crown Publishers, 2015.

[2] “World Population Projected to Reach 9.6 Billion by 2050 – UN Report.” UN News Center. 2013. Accessed February 15, 2016.http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45165#.VsFptvkrKUk.

[3] “Farming Claims Almost Half Earth’s Land, New Maps Show.” National Geographic. Accessed February 15, 2016.http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/12/1209_051209_crops_map.html.

[4] “Indoor Vertical Farm ‘Pinkhouses’ Grow Plants Faster With Less Energy.” Inhabitat Green Design Innovation Architecture Green Building. Accessed February 15, 2016. http://inhabitat.com/indoor-vertical-farm-pinkhouses-grow-plants-faster-with-less-energy/.

[5] Buckley, Chris, and Adam Wu. “Amid Smog Wave, an Artist Molds a Potent Symbol of Beijing’s Pollution.” The New York Times. 2015. Accessed February 15, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/02/world/asia/beijing-smog-air-pollution-artist-brick.html?_r=0.

[6] “Canadian Start-up Sells Bottled Air to China – CNN.com.” CNN. Accessed February 16, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/15/asia/china-canadian-company-selling-clean-air/.

[7] Vela, Justin. “Helsinki Data Centre to Heat Homes.” The Guardian. 2010. Accessed February 15, 2016.http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/jul/20/helsinki-data-centre-heat-homes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s