New ways to grow vertical farming

New ways to grow vertical farming

From the outside it looks like a tall, veneered barn. But as you enter through a large airlock designed to keep insects out, a kaleidoscopic scene emerges. A central hall is flanked by two towers. Each one is stacked with a dozen trays growing strawberries, cabbage, red lettuce and coriander. Each tray is bathed in bright light of different colors, mostly blue and magenta. Douglas Elder, who is in charge of this artificial Eden, enters instructions into an app on his cell phone and a brief buzz one of the trays of green basil slides out for his inspection.

Mr. Elder is a Product Manager at Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), a vertical farming company based in Invergowrie, near Dundee, Scotland. Each of the towers is nine meters high, the demonstration unit he runs occupies a mere 40 square meters, but by stacking the trays one on top of the other, a single tower provides up to 350 square meters of growing area. Using his phone again, Mr. Elder changes the colors and brightness of the 1,000 LEDs hanging above each tray. The app can also control temperature, humidity, ventilation, and the hydroponic system that supplies water and nutrients to plants growing on various non-soil substrates. Mr. Elden says that just with his phone he can manage the farm almost single-handedly

Plant Energy

Vertical farming of this type is not in itself a new idea. The term dates back to 1915, although it took a century for the first commercial vertical farms to be built. But the business is now taking off. SoftBank - Japanese company -, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos have invested more than $ 200 million in Plenty, a vertical farming company based in San Francisco, Ca. As of June 2019 , Ocado, a British online grocery store, spent $ 21.3 million on vertical farming businesses to grow fresh produce within its automated distribution warehouses.

Investor interest is growing just as technology promises to turn vertical farming operations into efficient "plant factories." The high-tech LEDS system in the IGS demonstration unit is optimized so that not a single photon is wasted. Hydroponics and the recycling that sustains it means that the only water that is lost from the system is the one that ends up being part of one of the plants and the towers means that the system is modular, therefore it can be expanded. Most of the systems that IGS expects to begin delivering to its customers in early 2020 will consist of ten or more towers.

Some people, however, are skeptical about how much vertical farms can offer compared to traditionally designed greenhouses. Vertical farms are certainly more compact, an advantage in places like cities where land is more expensive. Since sales of fresh produce to urban masses are often touted as one of the greatest opportunities in vertical farming, this gives it more importance. But a greenhouse gets its light and much of its heat for free from the sun. Modern greenhouses can also use supplemental solar-powered LED lighting that allows you to extend their growing seasons and hydroponic systems to save water, says Viraj Puri, co-founder of Gothan Greens, an urban agriculture company that operates greenhouses on the rooftops of buildings in New York and Chicago.

The biggest drawback of vertical growing is the high cost of electricity required to run the large number of LEDs it requires. This has meant that production has been commercially viable only for high-value perishables, such as salad greens and herbs. That, however, is a market not to get involved. But for a wider range of products, it can be too expensive. In 2014, Louis Albright, emeritus professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University in the United States, calculated that a loaf of bread made from wheat grown on a vertical farm would be priced at about $ 23.

Blue is the color

One way to save electricity is to use LEDs that generate only the colors that plants require, rather than the full spectrum of white light. Plants are green because their leaves contain chlorophyll, a pigment that reflects green light in the middle of the spectrum while absorbing and using the blue and red wavelengths at each end of the spectrum for photosynthesis.

The vertical farm in Invergowrie takes this idea further. It uses LEDs that are highly tunable. Although lights primarily produce blue and red wavelengths, researchers now know that other colors play an important role in various stages of a plant's development, says David Farquhan, CEO of IGS. A dose of green at the right time produces a higher yield. An early red spot can improve foliage quality. The lights can also produce various blue / red mixes.

To operate these LEDs efficiently, the company has developed a low-voltage power distribution system. This, says Mr. Fraquhar, can cut energy costs by roughly half of those used by existing vertical farms. As a result, the four towers can produce 15-25 tons per year of herbs, salad greens, fruits and vegetables. The company claims that it is two to three times what a conventional greenhouse with an equivalent but horizontal growing area and equipped with supplemental lighting and heating could achieve. And the system can grow all of these products at a similar cost per kilogram.

One of the jobs of the Invergowrie unit is to develop lighting regimes tailored to individual crops. Ota is to develop algorithms to control the weather conditions in a personalized way for each crop in order to increase the yield and quality of the varieties that are grown in the vertical farm. All the processes involved are designed to be efficient. Irrigation, for example, depends on captured rainwater. This is cleaned and recycled, but only 5% is spent on each harvest and most of it as water content in the plants themselves. The vent is also a closed loop that collects excess heat from the LEDs while managing humidity and oxygen levels.

By reducing operating costs the system should make vertical cultivation profitable in a wider variety of products. The company has already been successful with some root vegetables such as radishes and turnips. Bulk field crops like wheat and rice may never make sense for a vertical farm and it would be difficult to grow larger, heavier vegetables. This means that ripe potatoes are probably off the menu, at least with today's technology.

Potato seeds, however, are a good candidate, says Colin Campbell, director of the James Hutton Institute, a Scottish government-backed plant science research center. Their headquarters are next to IGS and they work together with them. Dr. Campbell says that many fields around the world are suffering from an increasing burden of pests and diseases, such as the potato nematode cyst. In the controlled environment of the vertical farm, from which both pests and diseases can be excluded, potato seeds could be grown more efficiently than outdoors. This would give them an advantage when planted in the fields.

Researchers at the institute are also looking for plant varieties that might do particularly well indoors, including some varieties that have been discarded in the search for crops that can withstand the rigors of an intense agricultural system. By diving into the institute's gene banks, Dr. Campbell believes he can find some long-forgotten fruits and vegetables that could thrive in the safety of a vertical farm.

All of this could go well with foodies and unlock new and forgotten lore. Shoppers can even find some exotic varieties slowly growing in supermarket aisles. In Berlin, a company called Inafarm provides grow cabinets with remotely controlled shelves for shops, warehouses and restaurants. Herbs and salad leaves, including exotics like Genoese basil and Peruvian mint, are replenished with new plantings as mature plants are picked.

Vertical farming won't feed the world, but it will help provide more fresh produce to more people. It may even be that as vertical farming systems get even better, miniature versions can be designed for people to put in their kitchens, proving there is nothing new under the sun or the LED. Such things used to be called planters.

 

Source: El Economista

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