Allegrini 2024

From Space to the vineyard: a mineral might (also) help in the battle against drought

The biodynamic compost in the Cold’Orcia vineyards ... with zeolites, which absorb CO2 in the International Space Station

In the director, Ridley Scott’s 2015 film, “The Martian”, the actor Matt Damon is a botanist who finds himself alone on Mars, abandoned by the rest of his crew, who thought he was dead. In order to survive on Mars, he will have to rely on his ingenuity, and more so especially on carefully managing the scarce resources available to him. Mark Watney - the character played by Matt Damon - obviously starts by using just a drip of water at a time and incredibly succeeds in growing potatoes. This is one of the most exciting moments in the film, as well as in the book it is based on (“The Man from Mars”, by Andy Weir). And, in the end, it is definitely believable since soil and seeds had been taken to Mars from the planet Earth.
Actually, though, Mars is still too far away for humans to inhabit, but the ISS (International Space Station) has carried out and will continue to carry out many experiments on agriculture in Space. The aim of the experiments is to understand what are the real possibilities for human colonization on the Moon, and, one day, on Mars, and also to test the evolutionary capacity of plants in growing conditions other than those on Earth. Perhaps it will be through finding interesting and unconventional solutions on land to everyday problems, experienced also in viticulture, which has to deal with the effects of global warming and drought. And, of course, inevitably, respecting the environment and the local area.
Outer space and viticulture, so distant, have therefore met in the vineyards of one of the most famous companies in Brunello di Montalcino, Col d’Orcia - 144 hectares of vineyards all organically managed, certified since 2013 - at the culmination of a journey that began in 2008. It is a logical, as well as necessary turning point for the brand led now by Count Francesco Marone Cinzano, and that has always respected its relationship with the territory. Since 1973, that is, at the very beginning, they had a very clear idea that the grapevine should live in harmony and balance with other crops, from the forest to sowing, olive trees to tobacco. The management at the Tenuta Col d’Orcia vineyard not only follows the dictates of organic farming but also supports biodynamic practices while continuing to research and innovate. They are open to all viable solutions, in the wake of defending biodiversity.
Thus, zeolites, a family of minerals (there are 46 types in nature) with a very open crystalline structure and interconnected channels, which, simplifying for clarity, give it the form of a sponge, have made their appearance in the biodynamic compost preparation used in the vineyard. They have very special hydroponic qualities, and as a matter of fact, they can retain moisture and water during the winter, and then release it when temperatures rise in the summer. Further, in this way, they improve the water retention capacity of the soil and combat drought. The child of experimentation in outer space is an absolutely clean solution to climate change. Zeolites are also NASA’s answer to one of the most difficult problems they have encountered in Space missions - managing CO2 emitted by astronauts’ breathing, which was fatal in the Apollo 13 accident in 1970.

Zeolites capture CO2 molecules and store them, using temperature as the only variable. Therefore, it is sufficient to heat the zeolites in order to release CO2 into space. This filtering system could have varying applications on land, and solve, or at least help solve the dramatic problem of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. Moreover, returning to their hydroponic characteristics, zeolites are also at the center of several experiments on the ISS dedicated to cultivating plants in Space, in zeolite-based substrates, to minimize the need for water.

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