Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Europe’s Huge New Vertical Farm

From Singularity Hub, July 13, 2017:
The Eindhoven High Tech Campus, a 90-minute train ride south of Amsterdam, consists of two rows of nondescript mid-rise office buildings on either side of a wide, tree-lined road. In typical Dutch fashion, there’s more parking for bikes than cars, and the campus is flanked by stretches of neatly-maintained green fields and canals.

The place doesn’t have an especially high-tech feel to it. But on the third floor of a building near the end of the road, a division of Philips Lighting called GrowWise is using technology to tackle a crucial question: what are we going to eat once there are over nine billion people on Earth?

GrowWise is a vertical farming research facility, and in conjunction with Dutch fresh food distributor Staay Food Group, it’s laying the groundwork for the first commercial vertical farm in Europe, slated to open north-east of Amsterdam in a town called Dronten later this year.

During a tour of GrowWise, I spoke with Gus van der Feltz, Global Director of City Farming, about the ins and outs of vertical farms and the opportunities and challenges the field will face in coming years.

No sun + no soil = organic plants?
Since the beginning of growing food, sunlight and soil have been fundamental ingredients. If you take away these two basic inputs, how do plants grow?
“You can think of a vertical farm as a black box,” van der Feltz said. “We look at it as an integrated system, trying to create vegetables in a closed environment.”

Before going into said ‘black box’—otherwise known as the growth rooms—we slip light blue covers over the soles of our shoes and sanitize our hands. These are minor protective measures, and they don’t prevent pathogens from entering the chamber. “If we were going into the actual growth facility we’d need to put on full protective gear,” van der Feltz said.
Outside the growth room is a winding, humming network of pipes, screens, and dials. Van der Feltz pulls back a large sandwich panel door, and when we step inside, the air is noticeably warmer and more humid. It smells like a farm, except without the manure, and it feels a little like being on a spaceship—trays of plants are stacked four levels high, hundreds of blue and red pinpoints of light beaming down on them from above. The light on the bottom two levels is white, while the top two give off a purplish glow.

We have to raise our voices to talk over the hum of the regulators. Solar light, van der Feltz explains, is spread across a spectrum ranging from UV to infrared. In photosynthesis, red and blue wavelengths of light interact with chlorophyll to help form glucose and cellulose, the structural material in cell walls.

LEDs can reproduce this effect, and can do it faster than the sun; time from seed to harvest at GrowWise is 30-40 days, as compared to 60-65 days in a typical greenhouse, according to van der Feltz.....MORE