Vertical Farming Series Part 1: Engineering a Vertical Farm

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series that looks at the vertical farming industry and the role engineers can play in ,developing the technologies to make it more scalable, inspired by the element14 Community’s new Vertical Farming Design Challenge.

The earth’s population is expected to reach nearly 10 billion people by the year 2050 and roughly 80 percent of that population will live in urban centers. This influx of urban development is putting increased pressure on the agricultural industry to develop new ways to feed to the world. Traditional farming practices are not sustainable for the long term. Historically, some 15 percent of the earth’s usable farm land has been wasted by poor management practices, and the rise of new cities will require us to rethink where and how we grow our food.

Shifts in population, infrastructure and the environment have all given rise to vertical farming, a fast-growing subsect of urban agriculture aimed at harvesting crops on multiple levels and in unused industrial spaces. Vertical farms have popped up all over the world – from the Netherlands to New Jersey – and are changing the way we use technology to farm more efficiently and effectively.

For all of the progress vertical farms have made in recent years, several major challenges still remain. The key to overcoming those obstacles lies with the engineers who can design new solutions that create efficiencies, reduce cost and maximize food production.

Lighting

Lighting plays a critical role in growing and harvesting crops in urban environments where natural sunlight isn’t steadily available. But from an economics perspective alone, lighting is also one of the biggest limiting factors to the widespread adoption of vertical farms. Most facilities are located in one of two parts of the world: privately-owned vertical farms in the United States, and publicly-funded vertical farms in Asia-Pacific, more specifically Japan. Lighting accounts for an average of 25 to 32 percent of total operational costs in those areas – a staggering number making it a critical issue facing the vertical farming industry.

LEDs are one of the most promising avenues for controlling lighting costs. More specifically, engineers can help by devising and using blinking LEDs to aid in the harvesting process. These solutions provide short, frequent bursts of high-intensity light to the plants so they process more photons than through photosynthesis alone., Though plant science has yet to fully understand the rate at which plant cells absorb light, LEDs have been shown to increase vertical farming efficiencies by up to 50 percent, and the technology is available for engineers to get involved today.

Energy

The second key challenge facing vertical farms is energy. Whether managing facility temperatures, the heating and cooling of plants or ventilation, energy control is critical. Like lighting, energy costs can be debilitating to a vertical farm and compromise food production.

Vertical farms of the future will be equipped with a wide array of sensors that directly address issues of energy. These sensors will monitor and control temperature, CO2 and pollen levels in the air and even water. Energy costs are also tied to LEDs, which are the biggest source of heat inside a vertical farm. The more control sensors can provide over the heat emitted from LEDs, the more energy efficient and cost-effective the facilities will be.

Additionally, these lighting, temperature and environmental sensors must be able to provide constant feedback loops, capturing and relaying critical data about the plants and atmosphere so farmers can made adjustments as needed. Sensors will be critical to boosting efficiency, reducing waste and stabilizing the climate, but none of that will be possible without support from engineers.

Labor

Labor accounts for roughly 25 percent of a vertical farm’s operational costs. Everything from planting and harvesting to cleaning and maintenance are both labor- and time-intensive. Automation represents a unique intersection of design and engineering that can lead to leaner food manufacturing. However, the vertical farming industry has made strides in creating green jobs so striking the right balance between labor and automation is critical.

Robotics engineers can play an important role in automating certain functions of vertical farming that would allow farmers more time to focus on all of the other challenges in running their facility. For example, automating the process of delivering key nutrients, oxygen and CO2 to the plants could improve efficiencies while minimizing the margin for error. Rotating and switching out plant systems is another big area for automated applications.

Vertical farming presents an opportunity for engineers of all disciplines to get involved in shaping the future of food. Whether building new LED solutions to control energy, or experimenting with robotics to streamline harvesting, the potential of vertical farming is as much in the hands of engineers as it is in the hands of farmers.

In our next post we’ll look at the home-based vertical farm, and the technologies described above that can also translate into a residential setting.

About the Author

Henry Gordon Smith is the Association for Vertical Farming Regional Manager in North America and an adviser in the element14 Community’s new Vertical Farming Design Challenge. Learn more at www.element14.com/verticalfarming.