Published on 06/17/98

UGA Envirotron to Help Scientists Study Global Change

The Georgia Envirotron in Griffin, Ga., is a one-of-a-kind environmental control facility. Dedicated June 9, the University of Georgia center will help scientists worldwide study the effects of global change on plants.

Gerald Arkin heads the Griffin campus of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He said the discovery of new knowledge through the Envirotron "will benefit Georgia, the Southeast, the nation and the world."

The $1.26 million facility allows researchers to study how a number of stresses affect plants. Scientists can control the temperature, humidity, light, pollutants and atmospheric gases.

The Envirotron provides controlled environments to study anything from single plants to entire landscapes.

Researchers use indoor growth chambers to study plants, pests and diseases. Greenhouses allow researchers to simulate crops in the field. And movable sunlit chambers were designed for landscape-level research.

The Envirotron will eventually allow off-site researchers to access data through the Internet.

Arkin said the idea for the Envirotron began in 1991 at a National Institute for Global Environmental Change conference. About 250 scientists had gathered to find an engineering response to global change.

"Some good ideas came forward," he said. "One of the challenging concepts was the need for facilities that would allow us to better address global change."

Some such facilities were already out there. But they didn't go far enough, Arkin said.

"Those scientists suggested that the new facilities allow them and their colleagues to work together," he said. "And they wanted to study not just aboveground phenomena affecting plants and ecosystems. They wanted to study, at the same time, both above- and belowground phenomena affected by global change."

In 1992, scientists from NASA, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others in the Southeast conducted a study. They found enough value in building such a facility in the Southeast.

The group chose the region because of the importance of farming, the diversity of plants, the many soil types and the climate.

Grants from the Georgia Environmental Technology Consortium, a unit of the Georgia Research Alliance, funded the Envirotron.

The GRA helps build research facilities to promote economic growth in the state. It funded the Envirotron through the GETC air quality program to address such issues as how pollution affects crops and how plants and soils neutralize or reduce man-made pollutants.

The UGA Office of the Vice President for Research and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences provided funds, too.

"Our vision is that scientists, working in multidisciplinary and multi-agency teams and in partnership with industry, will address the complex environmental issues that impact all our lives," Arkin said. "We also envisioned that this facility will spin off new technologies with this teamwork of scientists."

Scientists from Germany, Japan and Thailand are already using the Envirotron.

"The Georgia Envirotron is one of several programs the College has undertaken to strengthen the cooperation between agricultural and environmental sciences," said CAES Associate Dean Ivery Clifton . "In fact, cooperation is one of the principles that guided its design and is built into its operating plan."

The Envirotron is unique. But it isn't complete. Arkin said the scientists who planned it expect it to grow.

"We expect it to accommodate the science necessary to attack more robust and more complex issues," he said, "as we move down the path to research discovery."

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.