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Plants under a High-Tech Roof

Research Centre Jülich puts greenhouse facility for plant research into operation

[4. Mai 2004]

Jülich, 4 May 2004 - How plants respond to changing environmental conditions is being studied in the new experimental plant research facility at the Research Centre Jülich. The new greenhouse facility PhyTech enables scientists at the Phytosphere Institute to break new grounds in plant growing and environmental research. A novel combination of highly transparent solar glass and an innovative ventilation system ensures that plants in the high-tech greenhouse can grow under field-like radiation conditions. At the same time, the Research Centre officially reopened the renovated laboratory building - a model building for energy conservation that has received an award from the Government of the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia for its exemplary Agenda-21 activity.

What influence do an elevated carbon dioxide concentration or pollutant gases such as ozone have on plants? How do nutrients and soil organisms influence the response of plants to their environment? In order to study these questions, plants must be exposed to varying environmental and climatic conditions. Such experiments can now be conducted in the PhyTech experimental plant facility. In one of the PhyTech greenhouses, walk-in plant chambers can now be used to simulate arctic winters or tropical temperatures. Scientists can change temperature, air humidity, light and carbon dioxide concentration at short notice. "In this way we can study how plants respond to controlled dynamic changes of their environment", explains Prof. Ulrich Schurr, head of the Phytosphere Institute.

In the four greenhouses, plants enjoy light conditions almost as if in the open air. This is due to the highly transparent glass which in addition to visible light also transmits UV B radiation. The anti reflection coating on both sides increases the transparency up to 97 % for the region of light that the plants need for photosynthesis. Large size glass sheets and a larger roof slope admit more light than usual to reach the plant stands during the low luminosity morning and evening hours and also during the winter months. If ambient light is still too weak, scientists can extend the length of the day in the greenhouses. To this end, they have developed a mobile illumination system which only leaves its parking position when artificial light is required. This mobile lighting system also solves an everyday problem for greenhouses: If the natural light is sufficient, the lamps do not cast any disturbing shadow on the plants.

The wide opening venting flaps ensure a near natural climate under the glass cover. Even under full sunshine, the air temperature inside the greenhouse remains close to the temperature outside. However, the venting flaps must remain closed for certain types of experiments such as maintaining elevated concentrations of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Even for closed flaps, the highly efficient cooling system ensures the desired temperatures inside the glass experimental facility. In addition, to cooling or heating the entire interior of the greenhouses, individual microclimates can also be created for plants with individual requirements. Temperatures of the leaves and root zones can be individually adjusted by air conditioners on the plant tables enabling scientists to investigate impacts of different environmental conditions on leaves and roots. "PhyTech enables completely new investigations of the interactions and their dynamics between plants and their environment",explains Ulrich Schurr.

Across the street from their greenhouses is renovated laboratory building of the Phytosphere Institute - a demonstration project for energy conservation. The energy consumption of the old laboratory building corresponded to about 225 flats in an old building. After renovation, energy consumption dropped by more than half. The major contribution to these energy savings is through an efficient and intelligent air conditioning system. For example, used air from the rooms and laboratory fume hoods is combined on the roof where the heat is recovered. Fine capillary tube mats in the ceilings and walls cool selected rooms and laboratories in which a large number of devices and lamps produce heat.

The Federal Ministry of Economics and Labour provided support for the energy-related renovation work. At the moment, a guidebook is being compiled for the renovation of comparable laboratory buildings in Germany. In view of the large number of laboratory buildings from the 70's and 80's, a significant savings potential can be expected. "We can now carry out investigations on the future of plants and moreover in buildings equipped with pioneering technology", Ulrich Schurr is pleased to note.


Photograph: Research Centre Jülich


In PhyTech plants grow under field-like radiation conditions.

Photograph: Research Centre Jülich

Further information: PhyTech on the internet

Press contact:

Annette Stettien
Science Journalist
Research Centre Jülich
52425 Jülich, Germany
Tel. ++ 49 2461 61-2388, Fax ++49 2461 61-4666