Monday, March 19, 2012

New Seed Bank Technologies from the ECHO Asia Impact Center By: Abram J. Bicksler, Ph.D.

Having just returned from a quick trip up to the ECHO Asia Seed Bank in Mae Ai, I was impressed to see the latest technologies being employed by our low-input, grow-out, packaging, and distribution hub (aka- the Seed Bank). The first of the gadgetry was a new commercial grade vacuum sealer, used to vacuum-seal quantities of seeds that we then send out to our network partners. We have found that vacuum sealing dried seeds helps to reduce and stabilize ambient moisture, which is detrimental to stored seed viability. Vacuum-sealed seeds can maintain their longevity without the need for costly and space prohibitive refrigeration (although vacuum sealing with refrigeration can provide the best storage conditions). Also included at the seed bank was a backup sealer, of the type and grade you can get at many bakery supply stores. We will use this when the commercial vacuum sealer needs repairs.
Figure 1: New, commercial-grad vacuum sealer with examples of vacuum sealed seed packages

Figure 2: Vacuum sealed seed packages in new vacuum sealer
Figure 3: Backup vacuum sealer that can be purchased at many bakery supply stores

The second new piece of equipment was a seed moisture analyzer, with compliments from the HORT CRSP grant from last year. This piece of equipment allows us to rapidly and precisely measure seed moisture content in a matter of seconds. Before we owned this apparatus, we were dependent upon a lengthy seed moisture determination process using an oven and a scale. We have found that before vacuum sealing seeds, it is important to try to reduce the seed moisture to under 10% in order to increase longevity of the seeds. With this technology, we will now be able to accurately determine the moisture content during our drying process. The other great thing about this analyzer is that it uses electronic circuitry to measure moisture, and does not damage seeds used in the sample.

Figure 4: Seed moisture analyzer with respective parts

Figure 5: Close up of seed moisture analyzer; seed sample goes into the chamber on top, and within seconds, a digital moisture reading is produced

Figure 6: Oven and scale used in original seed moisture measurements; before weight of a given volume of seeds is measured, placed in the oven for a prescribed period of time (burning off all water), and re-measured to calculate the amount of water that was originally in the seeds

The third new piece of “equipment” has actually been around for a while, but we have only begun to use it recently. This is our earthbag seed storage structure in back of the seed bank. It offers a counter-point to our air conditioned seed storage room inside the seed bank, and would be appropriate for village-level seed storing. We took our inspiration from the root cellars of yesteryear, which because of their depth in the ground, maintained a constant cool temperature year round. From previous research, we know that vacuum sealing with refrigeration can extend seeds’ longevity, but both are prohibitively costly and difficult for many rural communities. The earthbag structure uses rice sacks of packed soil material to form an insulated and freestanding structure, which can then be used to store seeds at a cooler temperature. Ideally, vacuum-sealed bags of seeds would be stored in it, but we are also exploring the use of a reverse-engineered bicycle tire pump to create a partial vacuum within mason jars. The jars, along with the earthbag structure, could allow us to very cheaply reduce seed moisture and temperature.

Figure 7: The earthbag structure in back of the ECHO Asia Seed ank showing thatched roof, earthbag walls, and door

Figure 8: Vacuum sealed bags, vacuum-sealed mason jar, and data logger inside of the earthbag structure. 

The fourth new piece of equipment is the data logger, which we use to accurately measure ambient temperature and relative humidity to see if our other technologies are doing their jobs! These loggers have been placed outside, in the seed storage room, in vacuum-sealed seed packets, in the earthbag house (and anywhere else they can fit), and can record up to 40,000 measurements, allowing us to monitor our seed storage facilities and new technologies.

It is our hope that this suite of new technologies will propel the ECHO Asia Impact Center’s ability to better save and share seeds while conducting relative research and empowering local communities to do the same with very low-input.

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