Industry project may give space travel a whole new fragrance
To some, a whiff of rare perfume might evoke images of a wild, exotic place. But a University of Wisconsin-Madison and industry research project will be in truly exotic territory when it tries to cultivate fragrances in space.
A plant growth experiment aboard the Oct. 29 NASA space shuttle mission will attempt to determine whether microgravity can alter the fragrant and flavorful "essential oils" of plants. The work is a joint project of the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR) and the New York City-based company International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). (The project is one of two UW-Madison projects scheduled to be on board.)
The flowering plant will grow in WCSAR's device called Astroculture, a chamber that can precisely control growing conditions in space. When the project returns, the scientists hope to see whether the plant's brief growth spurt in space might produce an otherworldly aroma that's useful in consumer products.
"Companies like IFF are always looking for new natural sources of flavors and fragrances that consumers haven't experienced before," says Norman A. Draeger, a WCSAR associate scientist. "They find plants from exotic places on earth, such as Africa or South America, and identify pleasant tastes and smells."
"This latest exotic place where they haven't looked before happens to be space."
Draeger says they have reason to suspect that microgravity will be a player in this process. Plant oils are a complex mix of many different chemicals that form inside a plant, and a slight change in the chemical mix may produce big changes in the oil's flavor and fragrance.
One important difference between earth and space growing conditions, Draeger says, is in a physics principle called "buoyancy-driven convection." This is one of several effects that govern the transfer of mass inside cells from one place to another.
On earth, gravity makes the components of a cell buoyant - they float around in cellular fluid the way an ice cube floats in a glass of water. But in space, where weight is no longer a factor, the same ice cube would just hang in the middle of the water. If lightly tapped, Draeger says, the cube could move in any direction.
That same "absence of buoyancy," Draeger says, could make a difference in how these oils are formed inside plants. Molecules coming together in chemical reactions may be able to move more differently inside the space-bound cells of plants, potentially creating new compounds with different properties.
During the flight, the shuttle crew, using a proprietary technology developed by IFF, will chemically sample a flower of the plant. A fiber needle will be placed near the bloom of the flower to collect the fragrant molecules.
Upon its return, IFF scientists Subha Patel and Braja Mookjerjee will analyze the samples using the tools of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.
Anyone who's checked the fine print on ingredients knows that flavoring and fragrances are big business. IFF is the world's leading creator and manufacturer of flavoring and fragrances, and its creations are in scores of consumer products, including perfumes, soaps and detergents, air fresheners and a variety of foods.
IFF devotes almost $100 million annually to research and development of new products, which the company says is the largest effort of its kind "devoted to the two senses of taste and smell."
This marks the sixth space shuttle flight for WCSAR's Astroculture technology. The growth chambers are governed by a myriad of environmental controls, with light-emitting diodes that provide red and blue light, watering systems and a tiny camera that allows scientists to monitor progress from earth.