Grow Your Vegetables in a Box
Photo of Aeroponic Roots via KurzweilAI
The notion of grow local, buy local is becoming more of a reality for megacities, as a project called “Food for Cities” recently demonstrated that we will be able to grow all our vegetables in a box barely larger than a refrigerator.
The project was a result of a Singularity University challenge to come up with solutions that can positively affect the lives of a billion people. Taking into account the various constraints within the current system of food production, team members Derek Jacoby and Maggie Jack focused on the centralized nature of current food production.
What they were up against: Today, in good growing conditions, it takes an estimated 16 square feet of garden space to provide just a single person with vegetables — and that’s more than exists in most city environments. Drawing on the controlled-agriculture experience of their advisors, they determined that the best technique to personalize food production without the use of large tracts of farmland was aeroponics. Aeroponics is different than hydroponics,where the roots of the plant rest in a liquid nutrient bath. With aeroponics, the nutrient solution is vaporized into a fine mist. Aeroponic gardens can save 90% of the water used in a conventional garden, and the growth rate can be 25% higher than in soil gardens.
The team drew inspiration from John Hogan and Chris McKay from NASA Ames programs in planetary science and bioengineering advanced life support systems, and Dickson Despommier, of Columbia University, and his vertical farming initiative. In collaboration with NASA, the team instrumented their prototype gardens with sensors to measure nutrient levels, temperature, humidity, and pH.
The technology breakthroughs making this possible:
- Light: Organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) are approaching the 30% efficiency range, on par with the high-pressure sodium lamps used in greenhouses today. OLEDs can provide light in a spectrum ideally suited to plant growth, and can be placed much closer to the plant because they produce less excess heat while saving electricity.
- Biotechnology: Species of plants have recently been discovered that create a chlorophyll that is sensitive to low-energy red light. If this were introduced into food species, the lighting requirements could be dramatically lowered. We now have the technology to optimize plants for human nutrition. With biotechnology, our food can grow precise quantities of our medicines, and produce nutrient profiles specifically tailored to our personal needs.
These advances, combined with the automation afforded by sensors and a well-designed control system, led the team to a relatively conservative reduction in the space required for one person’s vegetables: from 16 square feet down to five—no larger than the size of an average refrigerator.