NZCEL, A Research Facility

In the early 1950s Dr Ken Mitchell, a scientist at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), began advocating for the construction of a controlled environment laboratory or ‘phytotron’ in New Zealand. The process of lobbying, researching, designing and building the laboratory took almost twenty years. The facility formally opened its doors in 1970 and was fully operational by 1972. It was closed down in 2013, forty-three years later.

The facility was made up of 24 fully-enclosed rooms with artificial light enabled by ground-breaking research into artificial light spectra for plant growth. The heat generated by the artificial lights was managed with a water barrier between the lamps and room. Heating, cooling and (de)humidifying each room was done with movable units so that each room had maximum environmental variability. There were two specialised frost rooms which could reach -25 degrees C. All 24 rooms were designed with automated watering and nutrient systems as well as electronic control of equipment, enabling environmental variation over a 24-hour period as well as continuous monitoring. CO2 and other gas levels could also be adjusted if required.

The National Climate Laboratory was conceived of in the halls and laboratories of DSIR’s Grasslands Division. It was built and managed by the Plant Physiology Division (PPD), a department that formed around the Climate Laboratory project. In 1992 the DSIR, in all its Divisional glory, came to an end with the radical restructure of government-funded scientific research. Ownership of the renamed New Zealand Controlled Environment Laboratory passed to one of the ten new Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) – the Horticulture and Food Research Institute of New Zealand Ltd (HortResearch). In its final five years, it fell under the auspices of Plant and Food Research Rangahau Ahumāra Kai, a CRI formed by merging HortResearch with Crop and Food Research.

Between 1956 and 2015 at least 569 papers and theses were published from research conducted in the facility. A number of these papers have been cited extensively and the knowledge they communicate still informs sciences today.

Controlled environment chambers and rooms are still being built and used around the world, including at Plant and Food Research. However, the new facilities do not approach the ambition and scale of the now closed National Climate Laboratory in Palmerston North.