Can LED Advances Help Vertical Farms Take Root?

Mar 29 2014, 9:57am CDT | by

Can LED Advances Help Vertical Farms Take Root?
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

It turns out that the price reductions and efficiency gains we’re hearing about this year for LED technology aren’t just interesting for traditional lighting applications in warehouses, streets, office buildings and so on. They’re helping a very niche area of green tech, vertical farming, take root in cities around the world.

Vertical farms aren’t just next-generation greenhouses for hobbyists, where the focus on growing vegetables and fruits on buildings rather than fields. A handful of notable startups have started tackling this space far more aggressively  – at least one of which has scored seed funding from Whole Foods.

Several of them figure in a new report on 2014 clean energy trends by researcher Clean Edge. It turns out that LED technology advances, as well as progress on development of sensors that help farmers capture data about nutrient and water levels, are cultivating new growth for vertical farms. Some of these technologies promise to yield as much four to 10 times per square meter as traditional farming methods, according to statistics cited in the Clean Edge report.

“The pricing for LED lighting is dropping dramatically: 60-watt equivalent LED bulbs which cost $30 two years ago, can now be purchased at The Home Depot for $10,” notes Ron Pernick, co-founder and managing director of Clean Edge. “And it’s not just the cost that’s coming down, but the ability for LED lighting manufacturers to develop application-specific lighting. For example, lights that produce red- and blue-spectrum only for farming in greenhouses and vertical applications. This means no extra energy is wasted on producing spectra that won’t be used. Philips, in particular, has been actively researching improvements in the field, both on its own and as part of the Floriculture Research Institute.”

Vertical farming is intriguing not just because it addresses growing concerns about food scarcity – the World Resources Institute suggests the world population’s caloric intake requirements will be at least 69% larger in 2050 than today – but because it helps reduce the need to ship vegetable and fruits all over the place. That, in turn reduces the fuel needed to transport it and decreases the potential for spoilage. Another consideration is food security: right now, certain countries import a huge percentage of their food, including Japan.

There are three different technologies prevalent among vertical farming startups:

“When judging farming for the nutrient-rich foods that will help feed the population boom, success depends on producing calories efficiently,” notes the Clean Edge report. “Vertical farming success may also be measured in terms of kilowatt-hour per grams of fresh produce weight.”

This whole area is unproven, of course, but here are some organizations I’ll be watching for growth potential (some are listed in the Clean Edge report, others are ones I’ve heard about elsewhere).

AeroFarms – Based in Ithaca, N.Y., this company focuses on aeroponics approaches. The company has been relatively quiet over the past year.

FarmedHere – Based in the Chicago area, this organic aquaponics company (which apparently uses Aero’s technology within its operations) got a $100,000 loan from Whole Foods in late 2012 to expand into abandoned warehouses. It grows herbs like basil and mint, and vegetables including kale, arugula and watercress, alongside tilapia fish. Each growing cycle takes about 18 days, compared with 60 for convention methods.

Green Living Technologies – Known for green roofs as well as urban farming approaches, the Rochester, N.Y., company also makes modular growing units that it calls mobile edible walls.

GreenGro Technologies – Hailing from Anaheim, Calif., GreenGro’s aquaponics technology is being used by community gardens, restaurants and commercial-scale projects. It just bought out another California company, Vertical Hydrogarden, in lat March.

MIT CityFarm – Affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the lab is research all three growing methods with an eye toward reducing water consumption by up to 90%, eliminating chemicals and improving yield density.

Nuvege – Calling itself the “vegetable factory,” this Japanese company advocates its density: it can cram up to 271,000 square feet of growing space for crops like lettuce into a 30,000-square-foot building.

Sky Greens – This company from Singapore uses hydroponics and hydraulics to create rotating growing towers that help plants receive the right amount of sunlight.

TerraSphere Systems – Boston-based TerraSphere tested its technology in Canada before building it on a commercial scale in Rhode Island. It is involved in a research project with the U.S. Department of Agriculture centered on strawberry production./>/>

Tower Garden – This is primarily a consumer-focused option for vertical farming but it can be used on a distributed scale. It was originally created by aeroponics consulting company Future Growing, and is used in Chicago at the O’Hare Airport as well as in Philadelphia by Whole Foods.

Source: Forbes Business


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