Introduction: JCN: Vector Equilibrium Food Computer Concept V60.s

About: I am the founder of Dynammetry R&D (soon to be launched). I will be researching and developing sustainable technologies for architecture, agriculture and space exploration. I work out of Nebraska Innovat…

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I set two important goals in taking this project on. My priorities are derived from the teleconferences with the NASA scientists and others. My take aways from these sessions were to think creatively and to have FUN!

The effort seems to be less about growing plants and more about growing plants AND minimizing the payload weight. As such I eliminated anything not entirely necessary for the concept phase. This also kept the budget low and the aesthetic very minimal... very 60s mod. Perhaps very Harry Lange; he was a principal designer for NASA who went on to develop the concept drawings and sets for movies like "2001: A Space Odyssey". I also had the goal of using as many of the methods and machines that my maker space will allow. My focus this year will be on electronics and robotics.

Lettuce is very forgiving. It does well in low light, needs few nutrients, and thrives in cool temperatures. It also grows fast and can be enjoyed on a cut and grow again routine. Lettuces respond to different lighting dramatically at the epigenetic level.

Perhaps the title is a bit cryptic: HAL>IBM>JCN JCN doesn't have a meaningful anagram yet.

The Vector Equilibrium is Buckminster Fuller's renaming of the cuboctahedron; his favorite Archimedian solid.

And personal food computers is a project of MIT's Media Lab and their OpenAg databank efforts. I plan to employ their software and electronic designs and provide them with my collected data. The project is open source and on going.

Step 1: 2D Concept Diagrams

Before thinking about the project as an engineer or perhaps a gardener, I considered the cube volume with conceptual analytical methods.

My first instinct was to "grow" the design outward from the center point. This idea seemed workable and worthy of further exploration and development.

The diagrams establish construction lines and represent concepts of irrigation, lighting, and ventilation. And they are rather like 60s minimalist, mod and pop art. The 500x500mm square sets up and establishes a circle dimension of 175mm.

Step 2: 3D Concept Diagrams

For many hundreds of years, mathematicians investigated geometric shapes and their interrelated characteristics. My favorite classic is J. Kepler's 1597 model of the solar system in his "Mysterium Cosmographicum". In it he progressively nests spheres and platonic solids to determine the orbits of the planets with the sun at the center. It was quite accurate but he abandoned it because he could not confirm it in his observations. From there he would go on to write the laws of celestial mechanics. His failure was a triumph!

Buckminster Fuller also took a considerable interest in the interrelatedness of geometrical shapes. He employed a hands-on observational methodology. I am trying to do the same more or less. Learning by playing.

From the given cube, the first order of transformation is to truncate the corners. This establishes the primary and secondary volumes. The resulting cuboctahedron sets up conditions that we will soon learn to be beneficial and ideal!

Fuller demonstrated that the cuboctahedron, which he renamed the Vector Equilibrium, has special properties. Too many to go into here. What is applicable in this case is that the VE contains perfectly the first order geometry in packing theory. Given a sphere at the center, the ideal arrangement and tightest packing of spheres around it is 12 spheres.

Further, if one considers the tangential planes between each sphere and the middle sphere, one can discover a new shape: the rhombic dodecahedron. It of course has 12 sides. Truncate the rhombic dodecahedron and you are back to the cube!

For my purposes, the rhombic dodecahedron can be 3D printed as a single layer shell!

Step 3: Low Earth Orbit Water Column Concept

NASA loves to play with water balls on the ISS! They say that water doesn't act like water in space. So why not use this fact as a starting point? My irrigation concept is to inflate/deflate a ball of water at the center point, constrained in place with a wire lasso. It can then be injected as necessary with nutrients or anti fungicides or whatever.

An implanted ultrasonic piezoelectric device can be operated at about 1.7 Mhz and can atomize the surface of the water ball into tiny droplets about 3-5 microns in size. This is ideal for root uptake of water and nutrients. Too much nutrient solution and the ultrasonic device can clog. But lettuce needs only a light nutrient solution.

I got the idea from watching someone vape in an enclosed car. The vapor went everywhere instantly.

Otherwise the water column is a stack of toroidal forms; a fan, a brushless motor, a ball bearing pivot, and an atomizer.

Step 4: Earth Bound Water Column Concept

What works great in space doesn't always work well on earth; and vice versa.

So the concept for a terrestrial water scheme needs to mimic the LEO design but necessarily be quite different.

The earth bound Water Column needs to support its own weight and the weight of the Root Ball and 12 plants. That requires it to be heavier than what is ideal.

The water ball becomes a water bath. Still it's an elegant efficient solution. I plan on redesigning it to incorporate all of its features into one printable solution.

The total Water Column weight as designed is 256 grams.

Step 5: Root Ball Concept

The rhombic dodecahedron becomes the enclosure for the root growing chamber. It measure 175mm face to face and prints for less than 50 grams.

I designed it with a crenelated surface to improve the performance of the 3D printing effort. It looks pretty good too! And as noted the Root Ball supports and orients the growing of the 12 lettuce plants.

50mm openings at the center of each face are fitted with Velcro to the plant growing substrate. The substrate can be coconut coir but I will be using hemp pads and 3M scrub pads.

A dollop or three of AGAR is applied to the center of the pads. They will hydrate, feed, stick and orient the seeds. Seeds are inserted into the agar pointed side "down". Perhaps the seeds will germinate this way. The lighting needs to be more intense, broader spectrum and ambient temps need to be higher. Most gardeners like to start seeds in tiny chambers but we will try.

The total Root Ball weight is a whopping 48 grams!

Step 6: Light Cage Concept

The Light Cage is a simple and elegant design but it sure has to work hard!

It is constructed from 24x300mm aluminum corner LED extrusions and 12 corner connector pieces that I call the "tardigrades". These are 3D printed in resin.

The spars support 2 lengths of ultra-bright LEDs strips which are programmable and dimmable. They can put a plant to sleep or they can make them 'dance"!

Note that the cuboctahedron shape is composed of four hexagons. Keep this in mind when you go to install the LED strips. Think of it as a challenge.

Note too that that the light strips cross directly overhead of the lettuce plants in every case. It is a big advantage to have a concentration of light exactly where it is needed. A smaller amount of light is delivered to the plants from the sides.

And note finally that the plants allow for a bit of an opening at the apex points of the Root Ball. This is ideal for directing ventilation down and through the plants if small fans can be mounted in the middle of the square sides.

The total Light Cage weight is 1331 grams. The power devices weighed in at 1500 grams. Almost as much as all the other stuff combined! The project total weight came to 3135 grams. How much does that cost?

Step 7: Light Cage Construction Tips

Although simple in design, building the Light Cage is a little bit tricky.

I recommend building a travel case to act as a support and guide. You can build it out of anything but its inside dimensions should be 500x500x500mm. I made mine out of melamine and cut it on the CNC machine.

The aluminum extrusions need to be cut to a uniform length of 300mm. Go slow with the metal cross saw.

The tardigrades are 3D printed on a FormLab2 laser resin printer. They are all identical except for two which have holes to thread power.

As you go, use Gorilla packing tape to hold the bits and pieces together. Eventually I will glue it together with moment connections but I want the option make changes as the design progresses... another reason to build the traveling case; it keeps the Light Cage from sagging.

Also it works to employ an alternating over/under method to install the LED strips. It pays to plan ahead.

And note the strips seem to expand a bit when they heat up.

I went with a better quality extrusion which is heavier but acts better as a heat sink for the LEDs. I may or may not end up using the frosted plastic lenses.

Step 8: Side Efforts

First there is the construction of an optional Traveling Case. It can be made of anything but it comes in handy when assembling the Light Cage and keeps the project safe and portable. It is intended, however, to be beyond the scope of this entry.

Keep your work spaces ordered and organized. Even on simple projects, things can get out of control.

Even if you know something will work, try to come up with another way. Exploration keeps it fresh and you never know!

Attempt to do the most crazy thing you can think of. I do it all the time. It keeps me happy and I enjoy the WOWs!

Step 9: Supplies and Print Files

Water Column:

SmartDevil Small Personal USB Desk Fan

Zerone USB mini Floating Humidifier

Water Column elements are 3D printed using White Ultimaker PLA Filament

Root Ball:

Terrafibre Hemp 5"x5" Grow Mats; package of 40

Root Ball is 3D printed with Silver Ultimaker PLA Filament

Light Cage:

LightingWill 10-Pack V-shape LED Aluminum Channel System; 1 meter Anodized Black

(2) BTF-Lighting WS2811 Addressable LED Strip UltraBright 5050 SMD RGB 5 meter DC12V IP65 Waterproofing

(2) BTF-Lighting DC12V 6A 72W Plastic Power Supply

(2) BTF-Lighting WS2811 14 keys LED RGB Controller

Gorilla Packing Tape and Gorilla Double Sided Tape

Light Cage Connectors are printed on FormLab2 3D printer in Black Resin

All supplies are available on

Step 10: EUREKA!

Let's grow this!

Growing Beyond Earth Maker Contest

First Prize in the
Growing Beyond Earth Maker Contest