The nature of innovation

The north of Italy is home to a unique breeding ground for a new research landscape. Private companies, research institutions and  the university are all networked in a new innovation zone to create new products and services. Around 700 researchers, conomists, start-up companies, students, experts and smart minds are working here day after day on improving energy efficiency, living better, sustainable food and automating everyday processes.

Bild: The nature of innovation - NOI Techpark in Bolzano

We are talking about the NOI Techpark in Bolzano, South Tyrol. „NOI“ is an acronym for „Nature of Innovation“, but „noi“ in Italian also means „we“ and sounds like the German word „new“. This ambiguity is intentional, combining everything that the NOI Techpark stands for: It is designed as an innovation zone and supports technology-orientated, preferably innovative companies, in their research and development work. Research and companies work closely together here and are part of a network that is closely connected in South Tyrol. At the same time, it extends far beyond national borders and has the aim of initiating new ideas and projects.

At present, around 70 companies are working here, as is the Free University of Bolzano and the most important South Tyrolean research institutions: Eurac Research, Fraunhofer Italia, the Laimburg Test Centre and the South Tyrol Energy Agency -  KlimaHaus. Around 40 different laboratories are available to them.

Christian Steurer, head of the terraXcube of Eurac Research at the Techpark in Bolzano, wrote as Co-Author about the research work of his institute for our Waldner Magazine.

terraXcube is the Eurac Research Centre for Extreme Climate Simulation in the Bolzano NOI Techpark. The extreme climatic conditions of our planet are created artificially in its climatic chambers – so that their impact on humans, on environmental processes and technical products can be investigated.

Temperatures from -40 to +60° C, light of up to 1,000 lux as experienced in a TV studio – even at night, 60 mm of rain per hour – even in a drought, 50 mm per hour of snowfall – even in summer. The terraXcube extreme climate simulator is firmly anchored to the floor of the NOI Techpark and yet can nevertheless „rise“ to 9,000 metres above sea level: atmospheric pressure and oxygen concentration faithfully simulate conditions that prevail on the highest peaks of the world. The extreme climate simulator offers medical, environmental and industrial testing worldwide. terraXcube consists of a large chamber, the Large Cube, and four small chambers, the Small Cubes. „While the four small chambers primarily reproduce alpine weather conditions, the large chamber can simulate the climatic conditions that might prevail on the summit of Mount Everest,“ explains Christian Steurer, Head of the Centre. This is a qualitative quantum leap for high-altitude and alpine emergency medicine, comments Eurac Research high-altitude medical physician Hermann Brugger, one of the founders of this globally unique project. After all, up to now scientists have only been able to carry out investigations at this altitude in open, difficult-to-access terrain and thus under uncontrolled conditions. „However reproducibility is still lacking in high-altitude medical research, i.e. the ability to replicate a test under the same conditions,“ Brugger continues. This is now possible in the terraXcube: up to twelve test subjects can stay in the Large Cube together with three scientists for a period of up to 45 days. The test conditions can be repeated as often as required. During the test period, participants can leave the room via a compressed air lock without disturbing the test process. The washroom facilities can also be used at 9,000 metres. If necessary, a rapid drop in pressure can be simulated in this lock, as occurs during flight rescue operations in the high mountains. A medical monitoring system continuously monitors the heart activity, oxygen saturation, blood pressure and body temperature of the test subjects and ensures their physical integrity. Brugger and his research colleagues from across the world expect the work in the terraXcube to provide a breakthrough in the research of hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) and its effects on the human organism. „The possibility of changing the air pressure makes the terraXcube unique worldwide and opens up totally new prospects, and not just for alpine emergency medicine,“ explains biologist Georg Niedrist happily. He, together with his colleagues from Eurac Research, is researching the function of alpine plants, animals and micro-organisms under changed climatic conditions in the terraXcube. „We are also hoping to get answers to questions that have not yet been clarified. For example, how do Alpine organisms react to pressure changes? To what altitudes can species penetrate when they escape upwards due to climate change?

How quickly can they adapt to the lower oxygen levels? If at all?“ terraXcube can also be used by companies from Germany and abroad who want to test their products, technical equipment and machines under extreme conditions. The Centre for Extreme Climate Simulation supports companies in product development and testing, from technology development to early test phases, upscaling, prototyping, validation and demonstration.

Business model

The infrastructure is open to research organisations, industry and rescue organisations at local, national, EU and international level. The Eurac Research institutes act as ambassadors in academia. Trade representatives are expanding the organisation’s commercial business and the NOI Techpark (www.noi.bz.it) offers marketing and access to global European networks. The service is tailor-made: from feasibility study to test design, support during test execution, data acquisition and data delivery. The infrastructure is governed by an accreditation process in line with the ISO/IEC 17025 standard to ensure the highest quality of testing and has been operational since the end of 2019.

Reduced plasma volume during acclimatisation to altitude

Some case studies: The most important challenge facing humans at high altitude is the reduced availability of oxygen (hypoxia), which leads to a reduction in physical and cognitive performance. However, if hypoxic exposure extends over days, a decrease in plasma volume (PV) increases the arterial haemoglobin concentration and thus normalises the arterial oxygen concentration.

The use of the terraXcube in this study permitted accurate control of the experimental conditions. Twelve healthy lowland inhabitants were taken to an altitude of 3,500 metres in the terraXcube. Blood samples were taken daily and the activity of (anti-)diuretic hormones and circulating concentrations of electrolytes and proteins were measured. A blood gas and viscosity analysis was carried out in the in-house laboratory and the samples to detect proteins, hormones and electrolytes in the blood and urine were prepared for analysis in the central laboratory in Bolzano.

Climate change and impact on our plants

Mountains are some of the regions that are most sensitive to climate change. We need to understand how mountain eco-systems will behave in future. terraXcube enables complex ecosystems to be constructed that resemble authentic conditions and expose them to environmental conditions in fast forward. A first hydrological experiment records the reaction of vegetation to changes in the water balance. Mesocosms (soil monolites) are planted in so-called lysimeters and exposed to current and future temperature, radiation and humidity conditions, which are realistic and likely to be expected for the alpine environment. These preparations are prepared and analysed in laboratories.

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