Biosphere 2 Adds Space, Synergy to Campus Sustainability Effort

The UA is making Biosphere 2 a more sustainable facility.
Sept. 10, 2008
Nathan Allen, sustainability coordinator, Biosphere 2.
Nathan Allen, sustainability coordinator, Biosphere 2.
Casita Village at Biosphere 2.
Casita Village at Biosphere 2.
The 15-passenger shuttle runs between the main UA campus and Biosphere 2 daily. The service is free to students and researchers with projects at the Biosphere.
The 15-passenger shuttle runs between the main UA campus and Biosphere 2 daily. The service is free to students and researchers with projects at the Biosphere.

The UA has become nationally recognized for initiatives that are transforming the campus into a green campus, and Biosphere 2 is adding momentum to the synergistic campus sustainability effort.

"Not just the three acres under glass, but the whole campus at Biosphere 2 offers unique opportunities for people, units and departments on campus to do experiments or projects in special space we can offer," said Nathan Allen, Biosphere 2's sustainability coordinator.

Those are opportunities for UA researchers and students who work on sustainability research in more than 19 centers and programs, who work in water sustainability research in nine centers and institutes, or who are involved in more than 160 sustainability-relevant courses across 27 departments in 10 colleges.

"Our list of partners, both on and off campus, is growing rapidly, and that's really exciting," Allen said.

Unique space available for diverse kinds of research as well as collaborative and creative Biosphere management and staff are two big reasons why partnerships are flourishing, Allen said.

A third major reason is that Biosphere 2 is a public attraction, an opportunity to reach visitors who are typically socially and politically engaged people with economic means, he added. Visitors come to see "Where Science Lives" and how science applies directly to daily life.

"Biosphere 2's ability to provide the public direct access to new technologies and to new research discoveries is important because, I think, there's been a growing disconnect between the public and science in terms of how science is relevant in daily life."

Now, however, there's a great opportunity at Biosphere 2 to "reconnect" the public and science, Allen said: "The discussion about global warming has moved from 'Is it real?' to 'What do we do?'"

"Biosphere 2 has always been about understanding complex systems and trying to boil them down so people can understand their place within those systems. Sustainability is about understanding our place within the larger ecological system, within the environment. Until you really understand what those relationships are, it's hard to make good choices on how to live your life."

Examples of collaborative projects that already have or soon will have direct public impact include:

  • Landscape architecture students in instructor Eric Scharf's graduate design course are developing designs for a new master site plan for Biosphere 2. After making site tours to Biosphere 2 early this month, the graduate students are drafting new site plans to better serve visitors and incorporate new sustainable systems in Biosphere 2 operations.
  • Funded by the university's SAHRA Center, UA students and researchers are about to install a rainwater catchment system designed by associate professor James Riley's water harvesting class at a casita in the Biosphere's Casita Village. The automated system will use a 5,000-gallon storage tank to supply rainwater collected from the casita roof for all its irrigation and one of its toilets.

    "We're hoping this will be the first of many projects that will develop the whole village into a demonstration of sustainable technologies," Allen said. "As we equip the casitas with different kinds of solar and rainwater harvesting systems, we can monitor usage. Casita Village can be like a lifestyle laboratory where the public can compare various systems and choose which will work best at their residences."

  • Ironically, although Biosphere 2 was originally built to pioneer research on sustainability, it was no small feat to set up an on-site recycling program. Biosphere 2 now recycles, thanks to Waste Management Inc., which extended a service line to the facility in late July. The company, which is a leading provider of comprehensive waste and environmental services in North America, "has been really great to work with, and we're excited to see where this collaboration might take us, just beyond basic recycling," Allen said.
  • University faculty, students and staff who are working on projects at Biosphere 2 can take a free shuttle that leaves from the Marshall Building at 7:30 a.m. and returns at 5 p.m., with midday shuttle service on Tuesdays and Fridays. For schedule, reservations and details, visit the Biosphere 2 Web site, http://www.b2science.org.