Environment

Energy-efficient vertical farm to fight food poverty

Energy-efficient vertical farm...
Tomato plants grow leaves under rapidly blinking, LED lights
Tomato plants grow leaves under rapidly blinking, LED lights
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Tomato plants grow leaves under rapidly blinking, LED lights
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Tomato plants grow leaves under rapidly blinking, LED lights

Vertical farming has been suggested as a way to bring fresher food to urban dwellers while reducing the carbon footprint needed to grow and transport them, but a group of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) students sees it as a way to improve basic nutrition in impoverished areas. Using simple equipment and LED lights, the students are developing an inexpensive way to allow almost anyone to grow fresh, nourishing food for their families and community.

There are many kinds of poverty, but one of the most intractable is food poverty. This is because the concept is one of access as much as affordability. In other words, some people may suffer from food poverty because they don't have enough money to buy enough nutritious food, but others, even in very wealthy countries, may live in areas known as nutritional islands. That is, areas where anything beyond poor quality, prepackaged foods is rare and expensive, which results in malnutrition and generally poor health.

To address this, a group of students from the CMU chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), led by Engineering and Public Policy (EPP)/Chemical Engineering (ChemE) undergraduate student Jack Ronayne, has turned to vertical farming as a way for people to grow food in their own homes.

"Something we identified was this idea of nutritional islands in urban communities: places with limited access to fresh food either by distance, freshness, or cost," says Kelvin Gregory, a professor in civil and environmental engineering and faculty advisor for EWB."We asked ourselves: could you simply grow fresh fruits and vegetables in your house? Obviously the footprint needs to be small, so you have to go vertical. And you'll need to use artificial lighting. These are the problems we decided to solve for."

Whereas some vertical farming systems look like something out of a science fiction film, the CMU system looks a lot more low tech. Instead of a bespoke cabinet with all sorts of designer bells and whistles, the system is a set of metal shelves about the size of a bookshelf of the sort that can be bought from any storage shop. This is covered with a black plastic tarp and wired with lights.

In fact, it looks like the sort of indoor greenhouse that a gardener might knock together for starting seedlings, but there is a special twist to it. The LED lights used in the system can be set to flash rapidly at different speeds as a way to figure out how much light is needed to best grow plants with the least amount of energy.

"What we wanted to study was energy efficiency," says Gregory. "LEDs are already more energy-efficient than old-school halogen bulbs, but they also have the added benefit of being able to be turned on and off very quickly. So by rapidly flickering these lights at different speeds, we have been able to measure how much light is necessary to grow the biggest plant, using the least amount of energy."

The present setup uses 40 tomato plants, though smaller plants like lettuce would allow 100 to be packed in with a very small footprint. In addition, the home version is relatively easy to scale up to hold more plants for community vertical farms. The hope of the group is that this research will one day allow everyone to have access to fresh, healthy foods whatever their location or socioeconomic status.

"The students will take it from here," says Gregory. "In a few years, we see this being implemented in different spaces around the Pittsburgh area. It'll be about finding resources, going out to local foundations, and setting up something that both serves the community and still allows for a research component."

Source: CMU

7 comments
tomtoys
Every success to project. Seems a sensible and humane one.
xs400
Just a thought, but aren't there too many humans on the planet?
Joe Maxwell
The comment by xs400 about too many humans on the planet brings up how their number might be reduced. At this point, Science and technology is focused on saving and extending lives. The keeping people from starving to death is humane and starving is not the best way to reduce the population. Where fewer people are added to the population, the elderly become too great a portion of the economy with too few supporting them as in Japan. The solution may be out of our hands with the Grand Solar Minimum that has begun and will make the earth extremely cold for many years. Enough food will be extremely hard to grow and the price of food will skyrocket. Societies will collapse and there will be food riots. People will kill to try to feed their families. This system could mean the difference between life or death for many but still most people will freeze or starve to death. Do your research about the Grand Solar Minimum for yourself and your family. The plans for this growing system must be made available to everyone at minimum or no cost, not just to the poor.
Pupp1
xs400, go back several decades, and people were forecasting widespread starvation by the 1990's, even in the U.S., because of extreme overpopulation. But, the predictions just didn't come true. Same thing about the Ice Age that was supposed to come, and made much worse because the total depletion of our fossil fuels that was supposed to occur by 2000. However, there are as much fossil fuels known to be available now, as when the predictions were made. In regards to the vertical farming project. I suspect the main benefit of such a system, is not the system. Rather, that to implement the system, the population gets an education in basic human nutrition. It would not surprise me if cheap vitamins proved to be a more cost effective of providing that nutrition.
Nik
......and of course, these impoverished people will have an abundance of LED lighting, and the associated electronics to do this? Whats wrong with sunlight? It's FREE!
WastedWallaby
What are the plans for pollinating these indoor farms? Leafy vegetables will produce just fine without it, but I imagine fruiting plants like tomatoes will still need outside access. Things are further complicated by minimal bee populations in urban areas as well.
Robert Schreib
A few snafus with the vertical farming industry, is that, even very efficient LED lighting has an electric bill, and you need a lot of safe compost to grow crops in. What if, the Soviet Union, could recycle their "City of The Chocolate Eaters", to turn it into the world's biggest 'AeroFarms' company collaboration? This place is a complex designed to keep churning out weapons grade Plutonium, even after world war II occurs, that the USSR created during the cold war era. No, it's just a place where they have keep stockpiling this atomic bomb fuel. But, the USSR and other nations have invented TINY nuclear reactors, that could use this fuel to generate all of the thermal heat needed for massive greenhouses in that part of Russia, and also provide more than enough electrical power, to foot the electric bill for an AeroFarms LED lighted vertical farming project, on an massive scale. The sterilized, safe compost needed to grow all of these food crops in, could be provided by re-gearing all of Russia's trash disposal to recycle all of their organic food wastes, and shipping all of it to this complex, where heated compost heaps could turn it all into useful soil. Also, there was a Dean Kamen invention a few years ago, a system that could take the raw sewage and manure from human society and animal wastes sources, and compress it under enormous heat and pressure, to turn it into a sustainable source of farming compost. That particular recycling system never caught on, due to it costing a fortune for it, and the fact that it required a LOT of electrical power to work. But, in the revamped 'City of The Chocolate Eaters', their practically unlimited stockpile of nuclear reactor fuel, could provide all of the electric power and thermal heat it needs, so Russia could also recycle a lot of their sewage into this project as well. And, recently, there was an article in New Atlas I read recently, about a new type of PEB, a particle beam, which, when 'sprayed' into the cloud of steam emitted from an electric power plants SOP set up of heated steam through a turbine to turn an electrical generator system, impacts a strong electrostatic charge into all of the steam droplets, so that they will cling to a fine wire mesh and be dripped down into a collection tank, as clean water, which this massive vertical farming operation will need. This scale of vertical farming may never work here in the USA, because we don't have that many places with an unlimited power source like 'The City of the Chocolate Eaters', which might be used to recycle much of the atomic power plant reactors being closed by France right now, but over there, this project could WORK!