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UArizona researchers join team studying viability of vertical farming

Leafy greens being grown under red and blue light wavelengths, which supports efficient chlorophyll absorption. (Photo courtesy University of Arizona)

A rapidly growing global population, ecosystem degradation, changing climate conditions, and water and land scarcity all contribute to the need for integrated and innovative food production technologies. Researchers at the University of Arizona are testing a vertical farming approach.

Fueled in part by a $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the university’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center will join a multi-university team to study indoor leafy green production, with the goal of improving the quality, quantity, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of indoor vertical farming production.

The initiative — called Optimizing Indoor Agriculture, or OptimIA — includes researchers from the University of Arizona, Michigan State University, Purdue University, and The Ohio State University. It has caught the eye of more than 25 industry leaders, whose matching financial support brings the project total to $5.4 million.

“We’re privileged to work with a team of powerhouse scientists, engineers, economists, and industry partners to collectively address the significant challenges faced by the indoor vertical farming industry,” says Murat Kacira, a professor of biosystems engineering and director of the UArizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

As the global population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by the year 2050, the demand to sustainably produce healthy, affordable fruits and vegetables is more pressing than ever.

“Controlled environmental agriculture is one piece of the puzzle, combining plant science, engineering and computer-controlled production systems to enhance the yield and quality of our crops and optimize resource use,” Kacira says. “It provides unprecedented opportunities for integrated production systems, where resources can be recycled and reused with the greatest use efficiencies.”

While indoor farming, also known as vertical farming, significantly enhances land, water, and nutrient use efficiency — and allows crops to be grown locally in stacked layers under controlled climate conditions — startup capital and operating expenses can be prohibitive, particularly with respect to lighting and air conditioning systems.

To better serve this burgeoning industry, researchers hope to integrate the indoor vertical farmers within the specialty-crop segment of agriculture, with the ultimate goal of increasing sustainability and profitability.

To do that, the multi-university team plans to assess variable environmental conditions, such as humidity, air movement, temperature, light, and carbon dioxide concentration, and then provide a more complete picture of best practices for indoor farming stakeholders.

Kacira and his team will use computer simulations, modeling, and experimental studies conducted at UArizona’s Vertical Farming Facility to design and test more effective localized air-distribution methods, environmental monitoring, and control strategies for indoor vertical farms.

Michigan State University will lead final economic modeling, with Erik Runkle collaborating with co-principal investigators Roberto Lopez and Simone Valle de Souza. Chieri Kubota will take the reins testing environmental condition variables at Ohio State University, and Cary Mitchell will lead closed canopy and phasic lighting tests at Purdue University.

“We will provide applied, science-based, and timely information about environmental control technologies, crop growth environments, and related best
management practices to indoor farmers, especially those new to this emerging industry,” Kacira says.

While most of the research will take place at the project universities, on-the-ground trials will be conducted at industry partner facilities, with UArizona working alongside AeroFarm, Ridder, and Heliospectra.

“The OptimIA project funded by the USDA SCRI program and developed and executed by the University of Arizona and other cooperating land-grant universities is a welcome addition to the landscape of researchers working to understand the emerging controlled environment indoor growing technology,” says Ed Harwood, co-founder, and chief science officer at AeroFarms.

Building on the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center’s 20-year legacy, the project complements previous research on hydroponics-based indoor agriculture in arid and extreme climates, bioregenerative life support systems, digital agriculture in controlled environments, and computational aerodynamics for controlled environment agriculture.

“Indoor vertical farming captures the imaginations of a younger generation interested in the future of sustainable agriculture,” Kacira says. “This project allows us to work hand-in-hand to educate the next generation of scientists, engineers, and growers who will lead the future of controlled environment agriculture.”

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