Circuits Must Be Loops In Order For Current To Flow Biosphere 2 Becomes ‘Big Science’

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Biosphere 2 Becomes ‘Big Science’

As you approach the turnoff for Biosphere Road, 30 miles north of Tucson on State Highway 77, you see nothing but southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and some odds and ends of semi-civilization. There’s a rock with the Biosphere 2 logo on it. There’s a flagpole. On the flagpole, in order from top to bottom, fly (1) the Star Spangled Banner, which is so disliked by the current administration in Washington, (2) the Arizona Copper Starburst, and finally the University of Arizona “A” flag.

Turn right (if going north). Go a few miles past cattle crossings, a copper mine, a power station that has nothing to do with B2, and an empty guard post at the entrance to what used to be Sunspace Ranch. On your way in, you might see what Columbia University called “The Apparatus” when it ran the city. Finish in the tree-lined parking lot adjacent to the entrance square, equipped with canvas shade sails. Watch out for snakes.

Just to keep things out of the way, note that Biosphere 2 offers “under glass” tours inside the 3.14-acre Biosphere Apparatus (U of A likes to call it “The Sphere”) from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. 363 days a year. except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, which are called “December 25.” They do tours even if it snows a little. (Biosphere 2 is 3,900 feet above mean sea level, 1,400 feet above central Tucson.) They do this even if the summer monsoons rage at the base of Catalina Mountain, where the Biosphere is located, if it’s safe to do so. For ticket prices (about $20), you’ll call 520-838-6200. The voice is automated, so you will NOT find out that you could be getting a better deal with membership, as revealed by the B2Science website. See “Links” at the end of the article.

The website also explains why people with physical limitations may not be able to operate the tour. Stairs are inevitable. The ground can be precarious. You have to watch your head. You have to watch your step. You have to watch both at the same time.

Well, it can’t be that bad. More than 100,000 visitors a year visit this trail, from 100 per day or less in the summer months, when tours run every 1 hour and 15 minutes, to 900 per day in the winter, when tours start every 15 minutes. Add the roughly ten minutes it takes to walk to the starting point, and the tour is 90 minutes, not including potty breaks, moving through underwater caves to see the floor of the artificial ocean, or visiting a site that was human habitat when Biosphere 2 was home to the “biospheres”. Fifteen Biospherers on two “missions” lived there in simulated space colony conditions from 1991 to 1994. There is a gift shop. There is a “cafe”, but its offer is limited, as are its opening hours. If you’re not in a hurry, Biosphere 2 is good for 2.5 hours.

You start the viewing with a 10-minute film. Call your head if you don’t care about the party line because this is a political clip. He tells the viewer that the “sphere” is the only place where certain experiments can be performed, so the U of A must control the sphere or the world will end. You will hear this over and over throughout the tour. If you doubt the concept, you’ll hear it again, complete with, “I said so,” so don’t torture the guide.

Keep an eye out for signs posted everywhere proclaiming that the biosphere is now, thanks to the University of Arizona, “Big Science.”

Either way, Biosphere 2 is an engineering feat. This becomes clear as your guide points out construction details such as the three-layer, hermetically sealed glass and steel structure, cave-like air registers and massive returns, a network of rain pipes in the ceiling and an artificial ocean wave machine. The tour will include a passage through the “technosphere”, the domain of air handling devices, refrigerators, pumps, tanks, reverse osmosis filters, circuits and pipes. You noted above that a rainforest might operate at 120 degrees Fahrenheit with 90 percent relative humidity, and a coastal desert at 85 degrees with 25 percent humidity. Each biome has its own independent environmental control system in the technosphere.

While the temperature inside the jar must vary with the time of day and season to mimic the Earth, it is essential that the pressure fluctuations inside do not exceed the strength limits of the glass (Charles’ Law, people, high school chemistry). The problem is solved by using two dome-covered “lung” structures to the south and west of the main biosphere. Inside each protective white dome is a cylinder covered with a rubber (Hypalon) membrane that lifts the central weight. Both the diaphragm and the disc-like weight form the ceiling of a wide cylinder connected by a tunnel to the biosphere. Weight controls the pressure, and the diaphragm rotates up or down like a piston to convert what would otherwise be a change in pressure into a change in volume as it rises and falls throughout the day (Boyle’s Law). On your tour, you will visit the lungs of the south with the added feature of a 250,000-gallon tank to collect “rainwater” for recycling. With some massive pumps visible above the central in-ground pool, the reservoir also provides a firefighting service for the Biosphere.

As you leave the South Lung for the outside world, hold on to your hat. A strong wind will chase you away as you step through the hatch. This wind will be the best evidence of positive air pressure in the biosphere.

Later, when you visit the living quarters of the habitat on your own, visit the toilet. You will find regular toilet paper in a roll, but it will be in an awkward place, as if the bathroom was not designed for it. It was not. Note the pipe and valve on the wall. This is a bidet. Biospherers never used toilet paper. The treatment plant was, well, plants, in a saltwater marsh. Everything, including waste water, was recycled to sustain life in a closed loop. Today, of course, the bathroom is connected to a standard septic tank. This will be your best proof that Biosphere 2 is no longer closed to the outside.

In fact, Biosphere 2 has been redesigned to allow selected gases (mainly carbon dioxide) to enter and exit. By this method, the composition of its atmosphere can be precisely controlled, as is necessary for the kind of science that is being done there now. Water is no longer fully recycled. If it were, the isotopic tracers used to pinpoint the source of the drainage would be counted twice.

Biosphere 2 is an ecological laboratory, but its appearance and ambience preserve the romance of its history in a place that sometimes resembles the glorious desolation of the Red Planet. Only the most hollow, dispassionate visitors buy into the “big science” story. Indeed, they are going to Mars.

Connections

http://www.b2science.org

http://biospherics.org

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