Achieving the optimum light environment to maximise growth and enhance plant quality and consistency is no longer the stuff of dreams. A new initiative from the James Hutton Institute, near Dundee and Intelligent Growth Solutions is set to make this a reality. Produce Business UK investigates
Work is beginning on a £2.5 million purpose-built facility at the institute in Invergowrie, which will be the first in the UK to house automated growth towers for vertical, indoor farming. The facility involves the creation of four towers, each nine metres tall. It will incorporate an automated system allowing trays to move up and down the tower, to provide access for maintenance, seeding and harvesting. What makes the system unique is the degree of control over the light environment that can be achieved.
Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) has been exploring this concept for several years. Founder and CEO Henry Aykroyd believes there is a gap in the market: lighting companies think about lights, researchers focus on plants, and growers are concerned about economics. All are separate but together they could provide a viable growing concept.
Aykroyd is convinced of the importance of vertical growing since it could avoid the need for pesticides, and takes up a relatively small area. By taking advantage of the decreasing cost of LEDs, and combining this with research expertise and integrated automation, Aykroyd felt he could change the way vertical growing was viewed.
A pilot scheme was set up in Scotland, near the world-famous plant research establishment, The James Hutton Institute. And following negotiations with the institute, planning permission was obtained for the project. A wide range of leafy plants will be grown using semi-hydroponic systems. Water consumption will be kept to a minimum and temperatures carefully regulated. Researchers from James Hutton will be closely involved at all stages, investigating growth patterns so as to identify optimum plant growth within the light spectrum.
Dr Robert Hancock of the institute explains. “What Intelligent Growth Solutions has done is to create a much better lighting system. This is possible due to major improvements in LED technology that have taken place. Up until now, growers have focused on areas of the light spectrum which drive photosynthesis.
“Plants normally live in an environment where they use the full spectrum of light at different wave lengths to interpret their environment and adjust their growth and metabolism accordingly. We know that plants use different parts of the light spectrum to respond to events. A classic example is the shade avoidance response where plants recognise a shift in the red to far-red spectral ratio caused by light absorbance by other plants growing in close proximity. Plants respond to this potential competition by putting on elongation, making a tall spindly plant. By manipulating the light spectrum, the architecture of the plant can be adjusted to suit the demands of growers and supermarket buyers.”
The researchers will not stop there. Hancock says: “We eventually hope to develop a series of sensors to identify suboptimal growing conditions in real time and well before physical symptoms manifest themselves. Colleagues at James Hutton are already doing this in the fields by imaging crops beyond the visible spectrum, a technique known as hyperspectral imaging, to identify the onset of disease or stress before it impacts crop yields.
“Within the growth towers our ultimate aim is to be able to interpret sensor signatures that indicate specific stresses such as high or low temperatures, water stress or nutrient imbalances. We want to build algorithms that allow a constant evaluation and optimisation of the growing environment. This could eventually become automated so that growers can simply seed the facility and return when the crop is ready to harvest.
“Furthermore by providing a consistently high-quality crop we will be able to reduce waste by eliminating supermarket rejections. Not only that but by manipulating light and other environmental conditions we will be able to schedule the crop to meet demand.”
The special lighting systems that have been created by IGS enables LED efficiency to be increased by up to 50%, while varying the intensity of light by 0.01% increments across all wavelengths, effectively recreating the effect of solar radiation on plants. This enables the lighting to be carefully targeted and feedback systems developed.
As a result, IGS predicts that vertical growing and lighting costs will fall quickly to allow crops such as strawberries and tomatoes to be added to the leafy salads and herbs already grown indoors within a closed environment.
Aykroyd says: “Our project at The James Hutton Institute is an exciting opportunity for the vertical farming market in the UK and beyond. The project will facilitate the development of our technology to demonstrate its scalability and the opportunities to deliver this at a global level.”
“Our mission is to enable our customers to be the lowest cost producers by growing local globally, with better quality produce and saving natural resources.
“Modern agriculture faces a number of challenges, which will only be exacerbated as climate and population conditions change. These include water scarcity, land-use and the problems associated with monoculture, the use of pesticides and their impacts on health and the natural environment due to their use.
“By growing closer to the market in controlled vertical farming conditions, it is possible to predict accurately and grow to market demand. The products are fresher, have a longer shelf life, and crop losses due to weather, disease, drought, or pests are effectively eliminated.
“The precisely controlled lighting and power management opportunities which our technology addresses are essential for more efficient growing capabilities. Our real-time software can ‘grab’ power when the grid has surplus power and ‘shut down’ at peak times, and will offer a scalable solution for the vertical farming market.
“Vertical farming is not the ultimate solution to urbanisation and food security, but it can be part of it, freeing up land and reducing waste.”