The Plant Time Machine- Climate change meets soil research
Climate change threatens to turn the world upside down. Even crop plants that feed us are endangered. With the large-scale experiment AgraSim, Prof. Nicolas Brüggemann at IBG-3 sends grain and the like into possible climate scenarios of the future. The clock is ticking.
This is where AgraSim comes in. The large-scale Jülich experiment is currently being set up in a hall of IBG-3 on campus – on an area of 18 by 11 metres across three floors. AgraSim is a kind of time machine for plants and soils: “It allows us to anticipate different climate scenarios – and thus to already test in practice today how wheat, maize or rapeseed will react to changing climate conditions,” explains Brüggemann. Whether solar radiation, temperature, humidity or the CO₂ content of air and soil: with six agricultural simulation chambers, the researchers can precisely simulate many climate factors. The heart of the facility: the high-tech plant chambers of glass. Directly below them: large cylinders called lysimeters, in which roots and the microbiology in the soil are studied. “The soil is just as important in this, but in many plant experiments, it is unfortunately still neglected,” says the researcher.
Unique in the world!
With AgraSim, Brüggemann and his team want to find out what will happen to carbon, nitrogen, other nutrients and water in the future – complete with the consequences for climate and plants: questions are, for example, whether higher temperatures cause the soil to release more carbon into the atmosphere and the plant roots to absorb water at other spots in the soil than before, and what happens to the nitrogen in the fertilizer? In future, the IBG-3 will even be able to compare different soils in different climate scenarios. In one respect, AgraSim is unique worldwide: “Only we can determine the gas exchange isotope-specifically and, thus, accurately measure the dynamic interactions between soil and atmosphere,” Brüggemann emphasizes. “This allows us to monitor how quickly ‘old’ carbon in the soil is degraded and replaced by fresh carbon – and whether a quantitative equilibrium is established.” According to the 51-year-old, these processes are important to understand in order to improve climate models worldwide. “We have exciting ideas for the next 30 years, but only these six chambers. That’s why we want to utilize the facility well to capacity and also get advice from science and industry on the issues.”
Success “Made in Jülich”
The AgraSim plant chamber is a Jülich in-house development to the core. “We designed and optimized it in cooperation with Nicolas Brüggemann’s team,” explains mechanical engineer Joschka Neumann, project manager from ZEA-1. The planning for the large-scale project alone took almost two years. Since nothing comparable existed, Neumann and the team involved at ZEA-1 first had to do a lot of detective work. “We went to many trade fairs, read all the literature on the subject and involved all the important minds from Forschungszentrum Jülich, in order to learn as much as possible in advance,” says the 37-year-old. Nevertheless, it was a long way from the first draft in late 2016 to the finished facility. The key to success: teamwork! While one designer drew the plant chambers, another took over the process technology, and an electrical engineer designed the circuit diagrams. An automation engineer wrote the software, and a simulation engineer took care of complex calculations: “In our simulations, we were able to look at the results and keep improving them,” says Neumann. Despite the huge hall, however, one thing was particularly scarce: space. “There were so many complex components and combinations that it took us many months to puzzle everything together in 3D on the computer.”
On the home straight
The joy was all the greater when the first finished prototype of the plant chamber successfully passed all the test phases: “We all joined in the excitement when we first started up the facility at the beginning of 2021 and had it running for weeks,” Neumann says. “In the end, there was hardly anything to improve thanks to the long and precise planning and development phase.” With this knowledge, the remaining five plant chambers are now being built. The complete facility is scheduled to be up and running by the end of 2023. “Something this great can only be created if many people from research and infrastructure work together,” Neumann knows. Even now, however, on the home straight, the challenges are not abating: “This year alone, around 50,000 individual parts will arrive in Jülich, and we have to store them in a structured way and assemble them in the simulation chambers.” Once the work is done, ZEA-1 will hand over the facility to IBG-3, and Neumann will move on to other major challenges.
AgraSim: this is how it works!
From 2024, with the large-scale experiment of AgraSim, Prof. Nicolas Brüggemann (IBG-3) and his team can examine in practice how crops will fare in the future climate change. But how will this “journey through time” succeed in the hall on the Jülich campus? Explore AgraSim even now on this virtual tour of the facility.