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Wednesday, 21 March 2012 15:52

March 20 open house at Swift Current research station (SPARC) hot and cold...literally

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By Jessi Gowan

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The Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre (SPARC) held an open house on March 20 in Swift Current, to show the public their new Thermal Gradient Plate (TGP), an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) invention featuring 96 individually temperature-controlled cells which can be set between -20 C and 40 C.

“This came out of a need to bring into the lab the ability to control temperature in a much more efficient way,” explained Mark Stumborg, Section Head of Bioproducts and Bioprocesses with SPARC. “Growth cabinets aren't really that accurate, you find a lot of variability, and we needed to get a lot of repetitions and a very accurate temperature controlled environment. The idea came about originally with a mechanical unit, to generate those temperatures using thermo-electric elements.”

Since then, through a bit of trial and error, the TGP has developed to offer a great deal of flexibility in temperature and light control. The new TGP also features a computer control device, allowing for incredible precision and security. SPARC scientists are also able to experiment with temperatures below freezing, which can only be done with a device like this.

“We start worrying about survivability through winter, whether it's insects or microbial life, or seeds, and how that affects their ability to survive the following agronomic season,” Stumborg added. “We've built technology now that we can repeat accurate temperatures to less than plus or minus two tenths of a degree. That was really important.”

This is especially important for researchers like Dr. Mike Schellenberg, a Range and Forage Plant Ecologist with SPARC. Schellenberg often works with native species, looking at issues like dormancy and survivability.

“What we are looking at here are things like climate change,” he admitted. “With new papers saying the minimum change in temperature over the next ten years will be two degrees increase for this region, we need to look at the species we have here. Will they germinate appropriately in these conditions, or do we need to look at different species that might germinate under those regimes better than what we will have in the future?”

Schellenberg's work requires more precision that what could be offered by the growth cabinets, which don't always function the same way, and result in a great deal of wasted time and resources. With the new ability to run the 96 individual cells at separate, accurate temperatures, there are plenty of  opportunities for Schellenberg.

“This is something that allows us to work in a very controlled environment, and manipulate things that we can't usually manipulate so precisely, to get a better understanding of how things would go in the field,” added Schellenberg.

The TGP will allow researchers at SPARC to conduct experiments that would normally take years in only a matter of months. And since the equipment was built on-site, it can also be serviced by SPARC employees.

“These are the kinds of tools that start out as just an idea in a scientist's mind,” noted Bruce McArthur, Research Manager at SPARC. “We have a really excellent collaboration with people who build equipment like this, which produces huge amounts of excellent research. It's great for us to have science and engineering side by side here at SPARC.”

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