product designer


Photosynthesis & Artificial Controlled Environments

While reading up on artificial controlled environments such as artificial controlled environments, I really began to see the benefits they have to offer. These benefits are also solutions to the problems facing traditional farming.

As I was researching, I came across a Tedx Talks presentation where Erico Mattos discusses the use of lighting technologies for indoor farming. Mattos made an interesting point which addresses the development of these technologies. In 2012, if you were to google indoor farming, 90% of results would be conceptual and only 10% reality. Where in 2014, If you made the same google search, only 10% results would be conceptual and 90% reality. This change highlights a real demand for technology, and now that we are in 2016, I can’t help but wonder how these statistics have changed and what developments they’ve inspired today. I also find myself questioning what brought about these developments in the first place. Could it be concern for the few natural resources we have left, expected population increase or the desire for more sustainable farming practices?

So, I began thinking about what possible advantages growing indoors could have over the great outdoors. The first thing that sprang to mind was reliability. When growing indoors, you don’t have to worry about the weather. I feel this is key when living during a time of great environmental inconsistency. With climate change expected to spark more frequent episodes of severe drought; which will have a potentially devastating impact on the world’s ability to feed a growing population, we need a sustainable agriculture system that makes the most efficient use of water and reduces expensive and environmentally challenging inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides.

Unlike traditional farming, indoor farming can produce crops all year-round.  All season faming productivity multiplies the productivity of the farmed surface by a factor of 4 to 6 depending on the crop. With some crops like strawberries for example, having a factor as high as 30. Increased production would allow for food production for a grown population.

Speaking of the population, with 80% of it expected to live in urban areas by 2050, it would make more sense to be growing food within cities. Because crops would be sold in the same infrastructures in which they are grown, they will not need to be transported between production and sale, resulting in less spoilage, infestation, and energy required than conventional farming encounters. Research has shown that 30% of harvested crops are wasted during spoilage and infestation, although this figure is somewhat smaller in developed nations.

By now, a little like myself, you are probably thinking but what is the catch? And you may be wondering why more of our food isn’t already being grown in doors- am I right? Artificial environments use a tremendous amount of energy, which is mainly used to power the light source.

Thing is, we are using a 100 year-old technology, this technology being photosynthesis. For those of you who don’t know, photosynthesis is the relationship between plants and light. For a plant to survive, it must go through the process of photosynthesis. The more energy a plant absorbs during this process, the more it will grow. But what is wrong with it? Well, as plants go through photosynthesis, they waste a percentage of energy.

To address this, we must hack the plants synthesis. We must also take into consideration that different plants require different amount of light, meaning different amounts of energy. The obvious thing to do would to create a light system that adapts to the plant, rather than relying on the plant to adapt according to the light. With such a simple in theory yet effective idea being a possible solution to one of the problems faced by indoor farming, it’s not surprising that a several concepts have already been created.

While searching plant automated lighting systems, I came across The University of Georgia’s sensor light chamber. The concept operates using three very important factors. The first being a plant senor that measures how the plants are using the light. The second- a control system which is able to decide how to change the lights. And the third- the lights themselves; which gives out light according the amount decided by the control system.

What’s interesting about this concept, is that it uses LEDs. Perhaps I was expecting something a little more high-tech to serve what sounds like a very complicated system. But LEDs never fail to let you down, offering a much higher level of control compared to traditional light bulbs; that generally have two settings- on and off.

All very interesting, but how does the concept work? Light frequency is an important part of its operation. In other words, this is how many times the light flash; which in this case has a capacity of 1000 per minute. Although invisible to the human eye, this gives the plant enough time to receive and then process energy. Duty system also plays an important role in its operation. This is the length of time the lights are on/ off for. By leaving the lights on for longer than they are off, we are providing the plant with larger amounts of light energy.

Having the plants control their own light, seems like a sensible solution to address the energy problems surrounding the lighting technologies used by artificial controlled environments. Using the plant of photos that requires lower light levels as an example, it adduced itself by 12% of its max capacity resulting in an energy save of 85%. Then a plant requiring higher levels of light- take sweet potato for example, it adduced itself by 64% of its max capacity which saved energy by 36%. When comparing this to a system that offers no control, uses 100% and saves 0% energy, it is clear that technology must work with nature and not the opposite way about. LEDs enable this to happen, allowing for much higher levels of controllability and efficiency.