Future farm: a sunless, rainless room indoors

Apr 11, 2011 By ARTHUR MAX , Associated Press
Gertjan Meeuws of PlantLab, a private research company, smiles during an interview with The Associated Press in a lab where he is growing herbs and vegetables under LED lights in Den Bosch, central Netherlands, Thursday, March 24, 2011. Farming is moving indoors, where the sun never shines, where rainfall is irrelevant and where the climate is always right The perfect crop field could be inside a windowless building with meticulously controlled light, temperature, humidity, air quality and nutrition. It could be in a New York high-rise, a Siberian bunker, or a sprawling complex in the Saudi desert. (AP Photo/Arthur Max)

Farming is moving indoors, where the sun never shines, where rainfall is irrelevant and where the climate is always right.

The perfect crop field could be inside a windowless building with meticulously controlled light, , , air quality and nutrition. It could be in a New York high-rise, a Siberian bunker, or a sprawling complex in the Saudi desert.

Advocates say this, or something like it, may be an answer to the world's food problems.

"In order to keep a planet that's worth living on, we have to change our methods," says Gertjan Meeuws, of PlantLab, a private research company.

The world already is having trouble feeding itself. Half the people on Earth live in cities, and nearly half of those - about 3 billion - are hungry or malnourished. , currently soaring, are buffeted by droughts, floods and the cost of energy required to plant, fertilize, harvest and transport it.

And prices will only get more unstable. makes long-term crop planning uncertain. Farmers in many parts of the world already are draining available water resources to the last drop. And the world is getting more crowded: by mid-century, the global population will grow from 6.8 billion to 9 billion, the U.N. predicts.

To feed so many people may require expanding at the expense of forests and wilderness, or finding ways to radically increase .

Meeuws and three other Dutch bioengineers have taken the concept of a greenhouse a step further, growing vegetables, herbs and house plants in enclosed and regulated environments where even natural light is excluded.

In their research station, strawberries, yellow peppers, basil and take on an eerie pink glow under red and blue bulbs of Light-Emitting Diodes, or LEDs. Water trickles into the pans when needed and all excess is recycled, and the temperature is kept constant. Lights go on and off, simulating day and night, but according to the rhythm of the plant - which may be better at shorter cycles than 24 hours - rather than the rotation of the Earth.

In a larger "climate chamber" a few miles away, a nursery is nurturing cuttings of fittonia, a colorful house plant, in two layers of 70 square meters (750 sq. feet) each. Blasts of mist keep the room humid, and the temperature is similar to the plants' native South America. After the cuttings take root - the most sensitive stage in the growing process - they are wheeled into a greenhouse and the chamber is again used for rooting. The process cuts the required time to grow a mature plant to six weeks from 12 or more.

The Dutch researchers say they plan to build a commercial-sized building in the Netherlands of 1,300 square meters (14,000 sq. feet), with four separate levels of vegetation by the end of this year. After that, they envision growing vegetables next to shopping malls, supermarkets or other food retailers.

Meeuws says a building of 100 sq meters (1,075 sq. feet) and 14 layers of plants could provide a daily diet of 200 grams (7 ounces) of fresh fruit and vegetables to the entire population of Den Bosch, about 140,000 people. Their idea is not to grow foods that require much space, like corn or potatoes. "We are looking at the top of the pyramid where we have high value and low volume," he said.

Sunlight is not only unnecessary but can be harmful, says Meeuws. Plants need only specific wavelengths of light to grow, but in nature they must adapt to the full range of light as a matter of survival. When light and other natural elements are manipulated, the plants become more efficient, using less energy to grow.

"Nature is good, but too much nature is killing," said Meeuws, standing in a steaming cubicle amid racks of what he called "happy plants."

For more than a decade the four researchers have been tinkering with combinations of light, soil and temperature on a variety of plants, and now say their growth rate is three times faster than under greenhouse conditions. They use no pesticides, and about 90 percent less water than outdoors agriculture. While LED bulbs are expensive, the cost is steadily dropping.

Olaf van Kooten, a professor of horticulture at Wageningen University who has observed the project but has no stake in it, says a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tomatoes grown in Israeli fields needs 60 liters (16 gallons) of water, while those grown in a Dutch greenhouse require one-quarter of that. "With this system it is possible in principle to produce a kilo of tomatoes with a little over one liter of water," he said.

The notion of multistory greenhouses has been around for a while. Dickson Despommier, a retired Columbia University professor of environmental health and author of the 2010 book "The Vertical Farm," began working on indoor farming as a classroom project in 1999, and the idea has spread to several startup projects across the U.S.

"Over the last five year urban farming has really gained traction," Despommier said in a telephone interview.

Despommier argues that city farming means producing food near the consumer, eliminating the need to transport it long distances at great costs of fuel and spoilage and with little dependency on the immediate climate.

The science behind LED lighting in agriculture "is quite rigorous and well known," he said, and the costs are dropping dramatically. The next development, organic light-emitting diodes or OLEDs, which can be packed onto thin film and wrapped around a plant, will be even more efficiently tuned to its needs.

One of the more dramatic applications of plant-growing chambers under LED lights was by NASA, which installed them in the space Shuttle and the space station Mir in the 1990s as part of its experiment with microgravity.

"This system is a first clear step that has to grow," Van Kooten says, but more research is needed and people need to get used to the idea of sunless, landless agriculture.

"But it's clear to me a system like this is necessary."

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Quantum_Conundrum
3.8 / 5 (6) Apr 11, 2011
a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tomatoes grown in Israeli fields needs 60 liters (16 gallons) of water, while those grown in a Dutch greenhouse require one-quarter of that. "With this system it is possible in principle to produce a kilo of tomatoes with a little over one liter of water," he said.


That is incredible.

Good article and excellent research. I've been saying stuff like this for some time now.

It looks like tomatoes are an excellent candidate for this technology.

As for the world hunger problem, I think the biggest and cheapest thing we could do in the short term is to STOP ethanol production from corn.

I also agree that vertical farming, powered by solar boiler arrays on the roof and PV arrays on other surfaces outside the buildings, is the way to go.

Though they frowned on it a bit here, it has been shown that potatoes and corn do significantly better (half an order of magnitude) in an hydroponics or aeroponics environment compared to open fields.
CHollman82
2.6 / 5 (5) Apr 11, 2011
As for the world hunger problem, I think the biggest and cheapest thing we could do in the short term is to STOP ethanol production from corn.


...and exactly how do you expect that to work? Do you expect the farmers to just give their corn away? If they can sell their corn to people who make ethanol out of it WHY would they stop doing that to give it to poor countries?

Why don't you just give all of your income above what you need to survive to these countries instead of asserting that others do so?
Quantum_Conundrum
3.3 / 5 (3) Apr 11, 2011
While the initial investments for hydroponics facilities is significant, it certainly makes FAR more sense long term than does turning corn into Ethanol to burn...to power more machines...

Hydroponics is also in a structured environment which favors automation, therefore significantly reduced labor costs long term.

So, step 1:

Quit burning our existing food crops.

Step 2:
Do hydroponics, preferably near the Point of Sale or consumer to reduce transport costs, as discussed.

Now think of this, he mentioned growing plants in half the time for 1/60th the water, and this is consistent with research done by NASA in which potatoes, corn, and other crops were grown in about 1/3rd to 1/2 the time for far less water.

Imagine how much food we could produce if "any time" was "growing season" and the crops grew twice as fast, and you had 100 floor hydroponics buildings?

We could one day grow dozens or even hundreds of times as much food in the same land area...
Tyzenstein
not rated yet Apr 11, 2011
I'm wondering how much electricity this system uses, and if it really makes sense to be using energy coming from a power plant instead of the sun.
Quantum_Conundrum
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 11, 2011
I'm wondering how much electricity this system uses, and if it really makes sense to be using energy coming from a power plant instead of the sun.


It will be powered by wind or solar power plants.

The difference is you can take that (solar) power and, using the LED lights, convert it to wavelengths that are best absorbed by the plants, thus increasing total efficiency of the plants absorbtion of energy.
CapitalismPrevails
1 / 5 (1) Apr 11, 2011
They should try the Omega Garden.
http://www.youtub...OR6m3k9w
Husky
1 / 5 (1) Apr 11, 2011
i would propose the hollow steel pillar of a really large windturbine to be a vertical garden , you get the housing for free, the electricity is there, the windturbine can continiously offload power for the farm, this is good becaus windfarms are plagued by peaks and low demands (naturally the farm could get juice from the net as well if no wind or chepaer power at nightprices)
Husky
not rated yet Apr 11, 2011
i would propose the hollow steel pillar of a really large windturbine to be a vertical garden , you get the housing for free, the electricity is there, the windturbine can continiously offload power for the farm, this is good becaus windfarms are plagued by peaks and low demands (naturally the farm could get juice from the net as well if no wind or chepaer power at nightprices)

here is picture of the base of the current largest windturbine the 6 MW e-127
http://www.metaef...ttom.jpg

http://www.metaef...bine.jpg

plenty of room for some veggies
CHollman82
1 / 5 (2) Apr 11, 2011
Interesting idea Husky... it would open up the job market for people with both gardening and turbine mechanic skills.
paulthebassguy
not rated yet Apr 11, 2011
This may seem like a good idea in theory but I have second thoughts about the nutritional value of foods that are not grown in natural soil.

For example, even today a lot of the foods you buy at a supermarket look great (juicy looking apples/peaches tasty looking mushrooms etc) but taste bland. If you actually compare them with an apple/peach from the tree in your back yard or a mushroom picked from an actual field the natural ones taste so much better. This is because of the diverse nutrients and minerals in the soil that have accumulated over centuries. Hydroponics & artificial dirt does not even come close to this.
bredmond
not rated yet Apr 11, 2011
This may be useful for developing nations which don't have a simple means of developing an economy. Mountanous, landlocked countries for example.
harryhill
not rated yet Apr 11, 2011
Nowhere does it mention labor. How about: Weed pickers; soil turners; fruit pickers; clean up people...etc..

Maybe out of the additional billion of so people, we could have enough extra to work the 'farms'.

Could be that by time this becomes critically necessary, humanoid robots will be standard. Now would be better.
Decimatus
not rated yet Apr 12, 2011
The tastes you get from soil can be as easy to replicate in your hydroponics as tailoring the light to the plant turns out to be.

Just needs some research to be put into it to find which chemicals and minerals provide which specific tastes when consumed by the plant.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Apr 12, 2011
It will be powered by wind or solar power plants.

The difference is you can take that (solar) power and, using the LED lights, convert it to wavelengths that are best absorbed by the plants, thus increasing total efficiency of the plants absorbtion of energy.


The problem is that solar panels collect less light overall than plants just sitting there on the field, and windmills are even more inefficient when you take into account how much space they need cleared and engineered around them. A wind farm is no natural reserve, not even at sea.

They would both require more land area than simply tilling the soil and growing the plants outdoors, although you could put solar panels on rooftops as well. However, you can also grow plants on rooftops in large cities, which is already done on a small scale.

And with both systems, you're looking at batteries to store the energy, which introduces cost, and significant efficiency losses.
Eikka
1 / 5 (2) Apr 12, 2011
For example, if you take an ordinary cheap polysilicon panel that has 12% efficiency, and cover 1 sq-m of your garden with it, you'll get about 1.2% of the energy that falls on that square during the day due to various technical reasons such as the angle of the sun changing.

This is somewhere in the ballpark of what the plant could extract with photosynthesis on its own. Some more, some less, but the point is that when you turn this energy back into light with LEDs, you've already lost some 70% of it because even LEDs aren't really that efficient in absolute terms. (Minus other losses of course)

So what is available to the plant is 20-30% of what it would have gotten outdoors out of the same square meter, and it isn't 100% efficient either, so you're looking at, I would hazard 10 times the area for solar panels to grow 1 sq-m worth of plants indoors.

And sooner or later you're going to run out of rooftops. It only makes sense if you're in the desert with no arable land around.
Eikka
1 / 5 (2) Apr 12, 2011
So yeah, this technology paired with solar energy is excellent if you're hellbent on living in Death Valley. Otherwise you're going to use more useful land to grow less food, although the plants themselves might fit in an office building.

The other option is to draw the electricity from the desert back to the places where people actually live, but that introduces transmission losses and more cost, and isn't really a solution for the poor countries with the food problems because they can't maintain the infrastructure.

So I would hardly call this solution to feed the world.
Husky
not rated yet Apr 12, 2011
old abanded mineshafts would be another way of getting free housing for the plants and free geothermal heat as well, at 450 metres you have steady temperatures between 20-25 degrees celsius, this free heat would offset the costs for lighting in colder climates and i think it is kind of suiting that the carbon footprint of an old coalmine is reduced by savings on gasheating, plus it doesn't take productive space at the surface
Husky
not rated yet Apr 12, 2011
old abanded mineshafts would be another way of getting free housing for the plants and free geothermal heat as well, at 450 metres you have steady temperatures between 20-25 degrees celsius, this free heat would offset the costs for lighting in colder climates and i think it is kind of suiting that the carbon footprint of an old coalmine is reduced by savings on gasheating, plus it doesn't take productive space at the surface, maybe part of the energy for the lighting could be obtained from kinetic energy, having the required water freefall for several hundreds of meters into turbines just above the productionlevel, where the water would be stored in a basin to warm up first before being fed to the plants. leftover plantwaste could be thrown even deeper into the mine where temperatures are above 30 dgrees celsuis, so they could easily be fermented for fertillizer or pre-dried for free and put in a biogas installation to supply additional energy for the growing layers above
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Apr 12, 2011
Eikka:

1) Regardless of the type of solar plant, you use heliostats to track the Sun.

2) Because you select a specific frequency that the crops absorb best, their efficiency of absorbing the light will be significantly higher than that in "natural" light.

3) Because there is no risk of droughts or over-watering from floods or heavy rains, and there is no risk from insects, a higher percentage of your flowers on each planet will produce, and a higher percentage of the produce will mature to harvest. Insects, worms (caterpillar or other larva), and heat waves are a tomatos worst enemies. Hydroponics eliminates all of those factors.

Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (1) Apr 12, 2011
So I would hardly call this solution to feed the world.


Let's summarize some things from this article:

1) Plants grow twice as fast. Doubling produce per growing season.

2) Since it is indoors and climate controlled, you will gain extra growing seasons, since any time is growing season.

This means you can capture sunlight and wind from outside, even during winter, and grow a crop inside in climate controlled conditions even in the heart of winter.

3) Using as little as 1/60th of the water to produce the same crop means that you can produce far more food with the same amount of resources.

4) Being under controlled conditions also prevents run-off of fertilizers and pesticides, which is both wasteful and harmful to aquatic environments. Thus the controlled environment provides another route of cost reduction and efficiency gains.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Apr 12, 2011
How long will it take for the EU to approve of such products after some greenie complains its not natural?
americandoo
not rated yet Apr 12, 2011
We Need To Incorporate This Technology Into Our New USA FUTURE CITY ! !



"FUTURE WORLD PROJECT"

"THIS COULD MAKE A GREAT FILM THAT COULD BE
BASED ON A TRUE STORY"

I was just reading about all of the advances that China is making including

the tallest buildings and came up with an idea that I would like for you to pass

on to whatever department is working on New ideas of how to improve the status
of the USA and make us #1 again in leading technology.

In past history when the USA needed a Moral Boost to our Country we built
such things as;

The Largest Bridges, Dams, Statue Of Liberty, Worlds Largest Futuristic
Fair, Landed on the Moon etc. It is o
Beard
1 / 5 (1) Apr 13, 2011
Unfortunately, most vegetables have very few calories and are low in protein. If this method could be combined with synthetic meat production we would have a winning combination.
FrankHerbert
0.7 / 5 (48) Apr 17, 2011
Synthetic meat, lmao. Eat beans.
Falconer
not rated yet Apr 17, 2011
Old news. Marijuana has been grown indoors for decades, with surprisingly fast results with its evolution.
Eikka
1 / 5 (2) Apr 17, 2011
1) Regardless of the type of solar plant, you use heliostats to track the Sun.


Fair enough, but not cheap and reliable.

their efficiency of absorbing the light will be significantly higher


Regardless of that, by the time you've made this special light, you've already lost more than 50% of your collected energy.

You stand to lose more than you gain. Area per area, you can't grow more food even if you grow double the speed and double the time available to grow, and double the yield through pest removal etc. because the energy balance is 10 times against you and you've got just 8 times more growth.

Besides, I suspect that the doubling of growing speed is already due to the fact that they can shine light on the plants 24 hours a day.