Sunday, May 16, 2010

Vertical Agriculture (From Outer Space)

While I continue this impromptu study of the current state of Vertical Agriculture - it's important to realize that the ingenuity of humans is always a factor. Industrialization of growing food is a long-standing feature of agriculture - which has probably simultaneously done the most good for productivity and the most harm in severing our connection to the land. Conversely, hard times lead to necessary solutions to make life possible even here on Earth - so the combination of technology needs to be paired with common sense and thought of the consequences beyond economics and efficiency.

:: plans to grow food on the moon - image and story via Palscience

As a rabid sci-fi fan - the more technologically referential proposals provide inspirations of how we may feed ourselves on a trip to the far reaches of the galaxy (or in the distant post-apocalyptic future) - but are less inspiring as solutions to feeding people on this planet due to the fact they seem like they're making something really simple and creating a super complex way of doing it.

:: image via Dezeen

The gee-whiz techno-gadgetry sure is fun though (both to parse and to make fun of).
I laugh when I see the commercials for the tomato towers (see Topsy Turvy for the latest) - as I am just waiting for someone to propose version of this under the guise of vertical farming to save the planet and wonder what the benefits are from growing tomatoes the way i've been doing for years - up! While garden space and solar access are always an issue - i'm having a hard time wondering how this vertical solution is better - maybe in zero gravity?

:: image via Charles and Hudson

In all seriousness - the ideas of vertical farming is definitely influenced by the research into space and the ability to grow food both indoors and in close quarters.
For those promoting these solutions - it's evident that they see this work as essentially saving the planet.

:: space food - image via NASA

A recent proposal from Philips Design called Biosphere Home Farming is a perfect example that you could see displayed in the mess hall of the Millennium Falcon (although by no means the only one). "We wanted to develop something initially that would supplement the nutritional needs of a family living in high rise accommodation, without drawing electricity or gas."

:: image via City Farmer

One major player in the technology-driven side is Valcent Technologies, which you've probably seen over the years with a range of products (and the addition of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to their board of advisors). My first introduction was the relatively innocuous High Density Vertical Growth (HDVG) panels aimed as maximizing square footage using simple hydroponic techniques.

:: image via Treehugger

This has been followed up with VertiCrop, which is more of a tray based rotating hydroponic system that could smoothly tuck into the food court on the Death Star.
"The VertiCrop system grows plants in a suspended tray system moving on an overhead conveyor system. The system is designed to provide maximum sunlight and precisely correct nutrients to each plant. Ultraviolet light and filter systems exclude the need for herbicides and pesticides. Sophisticated control systems gain optimum growth performance through the correct misting of nutrients, the accurate balancing of PH and the delivery of the correct amount of heat, light and water."

:: image via Valcent Technologies

Another new system is called AlphaCrop - which is a bit different and looks like a rotating A-frame to maximize solar access: From their site: "Larger commercial growers may also employ AlphaCrop™ to compliment their VertiCrop™ systems and to produce a wider range of crops including baby carrots, salad potatoes and strawberries." Looks like from the size of the photos, their keeping this one a bit more vague, but you get the idea. Use energy to provide lighting and maximize productivity by using more energy to rotate trays to areas to get more access. Maybe it's worth it - with proper accounting of all externalities - I'd love to see the balance sheet for a project such as the recent installation of VertiCrop at the UK Zoo which boasts a 20-fold increase in per-acre production.

This brings up space age point number 2. While the sun our amazingly cheap grow lamp, but also a great limiting factor in food production especially when fighting against density and shading from buildings, lack of horizontal surfaces, and many other factors. In this vein, are there times when supplemental electricity (perhaps from renewable sources) makes sense to grow plants indoors? Does the cost to produce electricity and grow food with it outweigh or at least equalize our cost of transportation? There's a long lineage of hydroponic growing indoors - from the winter tomato to the kind bud - but the question does still remain - even with high-efficiency lighting, as to the efficacy of these systems. Valcent has a proposal for a large scale installation in a warehouse using artificial lighting and information on their collaboration with Phillips.

:: image via Valcent

A number of posts delve into this, such as the transformation of a steel factory in Japan to growing hydroponic lettuce, and also City Farmer discussing the rise of indoor food production facilities in that country of which space is a premium. In 2005 they took a basement space and "Pasona Inc, a human resources service company, built the greenhouse in order to introduce the pleasure of agriculture also to train aspiring farmers in the city."

:: image via City Farmer

Another to this list is the Omega Garden Hydroponic 'Ferris Wheel' which takes the space age vibe to the extreme with rotating cylinders of growth around supplemental lighting. Check out the photo and video below for more info.

:: image via Treehugger

Another interesting proposal in the vein of the less commercial is the urban space station , which is a "parasite architecture," the semi-permanent structure sits atop any roof as it filters air, grows food, and re-uses organic waste for inhabitants."

:: images via Jetson Green

As mentioned on Jetson Green, the project (and maybe outer fantastic urban ag solutions) may be most important as a conceptual thought exercise that generates discussion and innovation, versus providing the silver bullet solution: "While the feasibility a system like this that actually works well is very low, this concept does have some relevance to the green building community. Perhaps above all, the urban space station is important as a built experiment. "

Designer Natalie Jeremijenko states:

"It's most important function [is] as an icon for future possibilities." It is a creative attempt to push the boundaries of urban design, and to continue the conversation around sustainable living solutions. As the green movement matures, it is critical to continually produce new concepts to challenge the ways of the past, and to ensure that the movement is more than a media-driven fad."
Oh, I can't wait for that day.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post! Absolutely very interesting and intriguing methods of growing plants. Thanks for posting!


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