TUCSON - Nearly 16 years after Biosphere 2 sprang to life, it will be getting its fourth go-round as a research facility.
And University of Arizona officials taking over the research reins as of July 1 hope the third time in an academic setting will be the charm.
The giant glass-and-steel terrarium, with separate environmental enclaves including a rain forest, desert, savannah, marshes and miniature ocean, has been solely a tourist attraction since Columbia University ended its seven-year research association in 2003.
Earlier this month, the facility and the 1,650 acres surrounding it were sold for $50 million to CDO Ranching and Development. But the buyers said the 3.1-acre dome would remain open to researchers and tours.
Lease of the structure and its 34.5-acre campus to the university for $100 a year for three years will be renewable - but "our hope is that it can become part of the University of Arizona," said College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz.
A $30 million gift over 10 years from the project's founder, owner and original financier, Texas billionaire and ecologist Ed Bass is intended to cover not only Biosphere 2's $1.3 million annual operating costs but also its research, Ruiz said. - Bass spent $200 million building the facility.
Tourism generates more than $1 million in yearly revenues, and its tours and public education center functions will continue.
The facility will be used for controlled scientific studies and the campus for scientific discussion.
"Biosphere 2 will provide our faculty and students exceptional opportunities to address major environmental challenges facing Arizona and the Southwest such as global climate change, sustainability of water resources and land-use change," said university President Robert Shelton.
Unlike Columbia University's operation, Arizona's students will not attend classes on the Biosphere campus. And the facility will not be sealed from the outside atmosphere.
One major program, B2 Earthscience, will focus on issues of global environmental change. One early experiment will study how plants and water interact, with researchers building three hill slopes to test how water travels down, into and across them.
Sensors will monitor water, temperature, carbon dioxide and other gases. Plants will be added to determine "how having life on a landscape changes the behavior of water, both in the air and in the soil," said program director Travis E. Huxman. "We are interested in how plants modify their environment."
Similar slopes will be built outside for comparison studies.
"Biosphere 2's size allows us to do controlled experimentation at an unprecedented scale," Huxman said.
The B2 Institute program, directed by Regents' physics and optical sciences professor Pierre Meystre, will bring scientists from many disciplines together to collaborate in workshops and short courses in examining from different perspectives the grand challenges facing science, Ruiz said.
Biosphere 2 originally housed four men and four women for two years - sealed in an experimental self-sustaining world-under-glass touted as a prototype for space habitation.
But controversy and technical problems dogged the project: too little oxygen, too much carbon dioxide, fatigued crew, nearly 14 percent average body weight loss from 1991 to 1993.
In 1994, Bass ousted the project's managers, alleging financial and scientific mismanagement. He brought in a consortium of universities to resume research projects before Columbia took over management in 1996, then withdrew in 2003 as part of a lawsuit settlement with Bass' Decisions Investments.