Vertical farming: overcoming the engineering challenges
The need to streamline production and more effectively use resources is at the heart of the rise in popularity of vertical farming, an industry that has been growing at a staggering pace in recent years, and that is widely regarded as the future of sustainable food production.
The increase in demand for organic, fresh, locally grown produce, coupled with the urgent need to reduce our carbon footprint, has driven more and more businesses to explore vertical farming, an innovative way to grow crops that requires less land and reduces our reliance on natural resources.
The use of technology in a controlled indoor environment has the ability to significantly optimise growth, allowing farmers to grow produce in every season regardless of weather conditions, increasing reliability as well as profits.
In spite of its numerous advantages, the practice of vertical farming presents specific challenges, which businesses need to be adequately prepared for in order to better exploit its benefits and maximise their success.
Here, Ian Hart, Business Development Director at adi Projects, a division of adi Group, gives advice on the engineering solutions businesses need to adopt in order to successfully navigate the vertical farming field.
What makes vertical farming more future-proof than traditional and greenhouse farming?
It is a well-known fact intensive traditional farming techniques and the use of pesticides can significantly damage ecosystems and affect the growth of crops, and with rising temperatures increasingly threatening the extinction of a large number of edible crops, change is nothing short of necessary.
When compared to other sectors’ total emissions, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions alone accounted for 11% of total emissions in the UK in 2020, and environmentally friendly farming practices such as vertical farming offer a clear course of action to help bring this figure down.
With more businesses focussing on operating sustainably, and consequentially, on the way they make use of precious natural resources such as water, the role of vertical farming becomes even more prominent.
Vertical faming allows manufacturers to produce crops with 70-95% less water than is required in traditional farming, making it a vital resource in our battle to safeguard our natural environments.
And with monitoring land usage being another crucial factor in increasing our sustainability efforts, being able to harvest 80% more produce per area unit while taking up 90% less land is a particularly valuable achievement.
Greenhouse farming – sometimes confused with vertical farming – harnesses the advantages of a semi-controlled environment, also giving farmers the ability to grow fresh, pesticide-free crops year-round.
However, vertical farming uses less water when compared to greenhouse farming, too, with this usually being fed down the stacked towers from the top. This means nutrients in the water can be recycled, and less compost and fertiliser are needed.
Ultimately, vertical farming allows for much higher crop yield than any other farming methods – just one acre of a vertical farm can grow roughly the same amount of product as 10 to 20 soil-based acres.
These complex indoor environments also allow for more control over the quality of produce, with a larger number of controllable factors such as temperature, humidity, and lighting, ultimately making them significantly more future-proof.
Controlling vertical farming environments effectively
Though vertical farming is the answer to a number of concerns surrounding traditional farming practices, not being equipped with the right knowledge and systems can result in a significant waste of money and resources.
When it comes to vertical farming, improved quality is an added benefit, meaning plants can be grown in accordance with strict manufacturing standards.
The purified air present within these environments allows crops to grow without being contaminated by pests, spores, and yeast. However, these delicate indoor environments need to satisfy particular conditions, requiring specialist watering and de-watering systems, and the right knowledge to operate them.
As they grow, plants themselves release large quantities of water, and controlling that water within a closed loop air change system inside the room can often be difficult.
Air should be treated first to remove the contaminants that are present in the air stream, with the added challenge that the air itself becomes wet due to the water evaporating from the plants.
Maintaining the purity of these environments and avoiding contamination means this air can’t simply be let out through a window. Reducing waste and the added costs of cleaning air to a high standard more times than what is strictly necessary requires technology that can de-water the clean air and feed it back into the overall system.
The most cost-effective and efficient solution long-term is relying on systems that can exploit the air’s dew points and allow the water to condense back out again, as well as effectively deal with pressurisation and temperature.
Ultimately, there are multiple process elements that come into this, but getting the overall design correct is crucial.
However, controlling vertical farming environments comes with individual challenges depending on the type of facility and the type of crops being grown, meaning that businesses would get the most benefit from investing in bespoke engineering solutions.
What about pharmaceutical crops?
Though the majority of vertical farming facilities are dedicated to cultivating food crops, the practice of producing pharmaceutical grade plants such as cannabis in vertical farms is becoming increasingly popular.
Being able to produce pharmaceutical grade plants in a controlled environment similarly reduces the risk of any contamination, theoretically producing a better and safer product.
And growing products of a consistently high standard is particularly important in the context of medicinal plants.
When it comes to the pharmaceutical and medical industry, higher standards need to be upheld in order to comply with FDA, MHRA and EMA regulations, with product quality being a factor of utmost importance for industrial buyers.
This is where design factors become even more relevant, as even minor miscalculations can cause producers to fail quality standards and be unable to sell their product. Suitable control procedures also minimise the risk of bio-crops being released into the environment.
Overcoming the engineering challenges
Removing risk during the planning and construction stages and for the duration of a vertical farming facility’s lifecycle requires being mindful from the onset, to ensure continuity throughout and prevent waste of energy and product.
Vertical farming provides a substantial opportunity to help brands forge solid reputations as innovators and help create circular economies. However, there are obstacles to overcome if vertical farming is to fulfil its potential, and relying on first-class, bespoke engineering systems and solutions holds the key.