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Measurement and Modeling of Reduced-Gravity Fluid~Distribution and Transport in Unsaturated Porous Plant-Growth Media

by Heinse, Robert

Abstract (Summary)
The effect of reduced gravity on the balanced management of liquid, gaseous and ionic fluxes in unsaturated porous media remains a central challenge for plant-based bio-regenerative life support systems needed for long-duration space missions. This research investigated how shifting capillary and gravitational forces alter the sample-scale transport and distribution of fluids in mm-sized porous ceramic aggregates. Measurements in variably saturated media conducted on the International Space Station in microgravity ($sim1cdot10^{-3} g_{earth}$) and measurements during parabolic flight in variable gravity encompassing microgravity, terrestrial gravity and hypergravity ($sim1.8 g_{earth}$) were supported by numerical modeling based on fundamental, earth-derived soil-physical relationships. Measurements of water fluxes in rigid saturated media suggested Darcian flow unaffected by gravity. Observations of hydraulic potential and sample water content were used to estimate the primary draining and wetting water-retention characteristic (WRC). Terrestrial parameterizations of the WRC were largely unaffected by reduced gravity. However, because the WRC is hysteretic, heterogenous water-content distributions resulted within the confines of the primary draining and wetting characteristics. Ensuing distributions were fundamentally different from terrestrial observations and were stable in the absence of a significant gravity gradient. We showed that these distributions, though unexpected, could be predicted using the Richards equation. One consequence of altered water distribution could be the reduction in, and increased tortuosity of, continuous gas-filled pathways for diffusive transport compared to terrestrial estimates. Measurements of oxygen diffusion in microgravity suggested reduced diffusivities during draining. These observations, particularly for the smaller particle-sized media, were suggestive of the delayed formation of critical air-filled pathways at lower water contents. This dissertation further uses a case history of a stratified root-zone developed based on water-retention characteristics of different particle-sized media. The root-zone design provided a more uniform water-content distribution at terrestrial gravity suggested to provide more optimal conditions for root growth. Additionally, the design and testing of a novel integrated sensor for measurements of water content based on the dissipation of heat and estimation of nutrient status based on electrical resistivity are discussed. These results should provide insights into microgravity fluid distribution and transport contributing to the design and implementation of controllable plant-growth systems for use in microgravity and future planetary habitats.
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School:Utah State University

School Location:USA - Utah

Source Type:Master's Thesis

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Date of Publication:05/01/2009

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