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Vertical aeroponic food growing systems

Jason Hawkins-Row of Aponic describes his invention of a new vertical aeroponic growing system for fruit and vegetables that uses 90% less water than conventional agriculture.

Aponic, a company based in Suffolk, has spent the last four years developing a vertical, soil-less growing system that uses 90% less water than traditional agriculture. The system runs on rain water and solar power, does not emit harmful run-off into the environment and massively reduces the need for fossil fuels in food production.

Aponic has picked up a number of awards for this invention, which is being trialled by companies and governments around the world. During the summer,  ponic was included in the East Anglian Daily Times’s Future 50 and was named in the Small Business SaturdayTop 100 in the Guardian.

Hydroponic systems have been attracting interest recently but most of these either hold the roots under water or in a water soaked block, limiting their access to oxygen. These systems are often not very space efficient and can be difficult to use in commercial applications.

 

Growing tubes

The system runs on rain water and solar power, does not emit harmful run-off into the environment and massively reduces the need for fossil fuels in food production.

System design

The Aponic design works on an aeroponic principal and comprises a vertical tube with a soft grip strip at the front to hold the stems of the plants in place, while their roots are sprayed intermittently with a nutrient solution inside the tube. A 12 volt pump and a simple control system ensures the delivery of a 10 second spray every twenty minutes. This gives the plants sufficient water and nutrient and also allows the roots to benefit from maximum oxygen uptake. Good airflow around the roots enhances plant growth. Excess spray flows through the tube and is returned to a reservoir to be reused.

This combination of optimal pH, nutrient concentrations and a highly oxygenated root translates into faster growth, higher yields and massive water savings. The plants are better able to form their natural sugars and oils, which boosts vigour and improves flavour. The nutrient feed runson a small pump that will power 100 tubes.

Most fruits, vegetables, herbs and salad crops will thrive in the system.

This combination of optimal pH, nutrient concentrations and a highly oxygenated root translates into faster growth, higher yields and massive water savings. The plants are better able to form their natural sugars and oils, which boosts vigour and improves flavour. The nutrient feed runs The very low power consumption of this system means that it can be run totally off the grid using a solar panel and a collector for rain water. The regular, modular aspect lends itself perfectly to full automation of the growing system in the future. The technology produces a high value crop because there are no weeds and there is no need for expenditure on pesticides. The system is easy to use and operators can be trained in 20 minutes. Once the system is set up, it has low inputs and the labour element is very much reduced. The system is modular; the tubes can be stacked without losing light. Long rows of tubes can be grown vertically upwards in the footprint of a greenhouse. The tubes are manufactured locally and can be flat packed to cut down on transport costs. Most fruits, vegetables, herbs and salad crops will thrive in the system. Basil, mint, thyme and oregano work very well. Spinach, tomatoes, kale, strawberries, cucumbers, melons, garlic, peas, beans, spring onions, broccoli, lettuces and peppers can all be grown readily. Since yields are usually higher, experimentation may be needed to choose the quantity and size of plants put in. Devices that are adapted for the cultivation of grapes and potatoes are also being developed.

Applications

UKTI (UK Trade and Investment) invited Aponic to join a World Expo exhibition in 2015, which led to connections with farmers in South Africa and Kenya. There was also interest from projects in Sri Lanka and other dry parts of the world, such as Australia and Spain.

In Kenya, land around the tea-growing areas in the Great Rift Valley is being sold off; the Aponic system allows the creation of farms in the less fertile areas. This enables local people to gain the skills and ability to set up their own businesses at a low cost and still produce high quality food for themselves and to a high export standard. A commercial farm can be set up without machinery or fossil fuels and can be sited anywhere with low entry cost and considerable expansion possibilities. 

Aponic is working with South African and UK cut flower growers, who like the system because it is frugal with water and soil-less – at present they have to scrape out all the soil from their polytunnels and steam clean it every time they plant to get rid of soil-based pathogens, such as pythium. The aeroponic system offers time, space and resource saving opportunities and can be easily automated from planting right through to packing.

The ability to create a farm anywhere is a benefit of the system. Farmers producing  lettuces in Senegal lose more than half their crop in the time it takes to transport it to the refrigeration plant. With the aeroponic system, the farm can be built next door to the refrigeration plant. Areas that have been no-go for farming or are difficult to reach have new potential. For example, Aponic systems could be implemented in the dustbowl in southern Spain, where climate change is making farming increasingly difficult due to reduced rainfall.

Farm shop systems are springing up where growth is staged in polytunnels with the fully grown out tubes being moved into live displays in the shop. Customers can pick their own fresh herbs, peas and lettuces etc., which eliminates the picking and packing cost, and if the product is not sold, it continues to grow rather than needing to be thrown away. The technology opens up opportunities for ‘pick your own’ vegetables, herbs, fruit and salads.

Another potential business model is the serviced greenhouse, where a farmer can fill a greenhouse with aeroponic tubes and sell growing space by the metre. That way shops, restaurants and food processors can buy growing space and the farmer tends and delivers.

A property maintenance company in London is installing Aponic systems in city gardens where space is at premium. The system is suitable for the elderly and children alike who enjoy gardening but struggle with heavy digging or bending down.

Opportunities also exist in the prison service, where there are a lot of spare hands to grow food for the prison and at the same time prisoners can learn a new skill that they can take with them when they leave. Because the system is vertical and does not break ground, it can be installed almost anywhere on contaminated ground or in a disused factory unit.

Scientists at NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany), a pioneering plant science organisation based at Cambridge University, are working on a pan- African sustainable intensification of agriculture project in collaboration with Aponic. Nottingham Trent University is running pilot studies using the system to carry out research into nano-nutrients to further improve growth speed and yield.

Circular production

The aeroponic system was originally developed as an aquaponic unit with water taken from a fish pond being pumped through the tubes, which act like bio-digestors, turning the ammonia from the fish waste into nitrate to feed the plants. Some systems have recently been installed at the NIAB Research Hub at Hasse Fen in Cambridge, where Aponic is working on a project with Entomics using supermarket food waste to breed black soldier fly larvae, which are fed to fish. Some of the produce from the growing tubes (chia plants), which are very high in Omega 3 oils, will also be fed to the black soldier fly larvae to create fish food high in Omega 3. The fish waste is converted into nitrate by microorganisms in the tubes, which in turn feeds the plants.

This sort of circular sustainable production of food crops forms a key element in protein and vegetable production in low to middle income countries. Iron supplementation of the water is required as that is the only element not present in sufficient quantities in the fish waste. The project will test the potential for creating commercial fish food without using fish trawled from the sea.

Jason Hawkins-Row, Aponic Ltd, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 0BD
Tel: 0845 527 5797 Email: jason@aponic.co.uk Web: www.aponic.co.uk

 



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