Sometimes an outside perspective is the best route to solving a problem. John Davis resolved a major issue in the Exxon-Valdez oil spill recovery by spending his career going nowhere near the petroleum industry. A few memories of using a concrete vibrator on a project with a friend served as inspiration for how vibrations could be used to help oil flow off barges.
The future of vertical farming: the intelligent ecosystem.
Stories like this are inspiring to me. They show how leveraging a broad range of experiences, particularly from fields that seem unrelated, can be used to solve our most critical problems. With a team of experts whose specialties range from fluidics to mechatronics, medical technology to agriculture, Cambridge Consultants takes on the daunting task of professionally creating these cross-sector “eureka” moments while reducing operational risk. Using ice slurry to cool homes more efficiently or applying digital microfluidics in cancer biopsies illustrates this process in action. The example I’m going to review more closely here is from vertical farming, and specifically aeroponics.
Soil-free farming systems promise tremendous benefits. They require less than 10% of the water used in traditional agriculture and have a smaller area footprint. They have more consistent plant growth and (arguably) tastier products. Aeroponics is a particularly interesting technique because it uses less water than other methods and can have faster plant growth due to higher root oxygenation. If successful, vertical farms result in new businesses and opportunities for improvements in food delivery; urban farms that combat food deserts while supporting booming populations, longer shelf lives for plants that get to keep their dirt-free roots, and chefs cultivating designer produce with nutrient mixes that create just the right flavors.
Current downsides of vertical farming systems include the high initial and energy costs of LEDs, tricky environmental controls, and a lack of data and operator knowledge. Aeroponics has these obstacles as well as risks and costs from additional components. Commercial aeroponics systems typically operate at high pressure. They need accumulator tanks and compressed air, which adds system complexity and energy requirements. Aeroponic spray nozzles are also vulnerable to clogging, which can have catastrophic consequences for dependent plants. These challenges mean that many vertical farmers are slow to seize the opportunity of aeroponic methods, despite the potential advantages.
So how can we use our broad knowledge base to eliminate these obstacles? From a technical perspective, the crux of the matter is the tension between optimal spray particle size and nozzle clogging. Spray that is too fine fails to collect on roots, while large particles will settle fully without contacting the plant at all. Low pressure systems regulate particle diameters by restricting orifice size, but smaller orifices also make them more vulnerable to clogging with nutrient deposits. To create the right spray using bigger orifices, larger aeroponics systems apply high pressure.
This brings us back to an opportunity to apply fluidics in response to the challenge. The Vortik nozzle, for example, could be applied to improve system robustness and reduce operational costs along the way.
Vortik was developed by leveraging expertise from multiple industry sectors – including inhalers and consumer spray systems – and cyclone physics. It can generate small particles at lower pressures than the current spray systems, while still using a large orifice. It’s a good example of how broad experience with issues of clogging and control in spray systems, combined with specialist knowledge in physics, can have powerful results.
Vortik unmodified might not yet be ideal for vertical farming, but I see it as a harbinger of a possible breakthrough. The concept proves it’s possible to create a wide-orifice, low-pressure nozzle that will generate particles of the right size for plants. Benefits could include reduced system downtime – thanks to fewer clogged nozzles and less maintenance – as well as better yields from the prevention of crop loss, and lower operating energy costs. An improvement on Vortik would be a system that uses no pressurised air at all, reducing both the number of necessary components and capital costs.
Applying knowledge across industries generates breakthroughs, like using cyclone physics to help resolve agricultural challenges. This same technology could disrupt traditional misting, or aerosol technology used in medical and consumer devices. The general principle of sparking creativity through breadth of knowledge transcends markets. It’s pertinent in fields as diverse as medical autoinjectors and satellites, showing how insight in the right place can transform work across industries.