Human terrarium, Biosphere 2, looking good at 20

By Allen G. Breed

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 30 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

First, just a couple of weeks into the mission, Poynter — manager of field agricultural crops — sliced off the tip of her left middle finger in a rice hulling machine. When inside attempts at reattachment failed, Poynter reluctantly left the B2 briefly for surgery — but still lost the fingertip.

Project officials had boasted that B2 was more airtight than the space shuttle. But by December, tests showed significant leakage, and outside air had to be pumped in.

Over time, oxygen levels inside B2 had dropped to dangerous levels, while carbon dioxide spiked. Poynter and the others were experiencing lethargy, shortness of breath, sleep apnea and "mood swings."

"The chemistry of the atmosphere was all whacked out," says Joaquin Ruiz, dean of UA's College of Science. "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, who made B2 a running gag, had an explanation.

"Any kid'll tell you you can't keep eight scientists in a giant mayonnaise jar unless you put holes in the top of the thing."

There were explosions in the cockroach and ant populations. The coral reef died. And then there were revelations that a carbon dioxide scrubber had been installed — belying the notion that the plants would keep the air pure — and that the facility had been stocked with outside food.

Biosphere 2 had a 100-year business model — 50, two-year missions. But after one more group of eight finished its two-year tour in 1994, the live-in phase at B2 was over.

Columbia University became B2's "managing university partner" in 1996 and began manipulating carbon dioxide levels in the now "flow-through" system to study global warming. Columbia left in 2003, and nothing much went on there until June 2007, when Arizona became the "managing university partner."

In a way, B2 itself has been recycled. Everywhere you look, there are experiments going on.

In one current project, researchers from a German company have draped green and white blankets bristling with solar panels over a series of old mine "tailings — the elongated debris piles that surround B2 and snake through the Southwest. Such arrays already allow B2 to go "off the grid" if necessary, and the hope is they may someday dot the landscape, serving the dual purpose of preventing erosion and producing clean, renewable energy.

All water inside B2 was once recirculated and reused. These days, the facility works on a one-path system, says Matt Adamson, senior education and outreach coordinator.

"Because we'll often introduce an isotope into the water for research purposes, and so we don't want to recycle and then reread that data over again."

They're even studying B2 itself, which, aside from the odd cracked window pane or spot of surface rust, looks pretty good for its age.

"Biosphere was completely over-engineered," using first-rate materials, says Ruiz.

Adamson says researchers are in the middle of a survey of all plant life inside Biosphere 2, which will then be compared against the original planting charts. They've already found one species of palm-like cycad — Zamia fischeri — that is now endangered in the outside world.

"Some people imagine a scenario where Biosphere might almost be an ark of plants," Adamson says as he passes a prehistoric-looking tree that stretches almost to the glass ceiling. "As they potentially become endangered in the real world, we'll have viable, healthy specimens in here."

But of all the experiments going on there, "LEO" is the star.

Each of the small watersheds — measuring about 18 meters wide by 30 meters long — will contain tons of "naive soil" (previously unexposed to the elements) mined near Flagstaff and ground to scientists' specifications, says B2 director Travis Huxman. Researchers will be able to alter the conditions inside each chamber and control the conditions to which each slope is exposed.

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