Innovator Spotlight: Princeton University
New Jersey, USA
As true scientists, Dr. Gauthier and his students are evaluating the complexity of vertical farming applications, from feasibility of the technique to plant growth and development. Vertical farms consume up to 95% less water than conventional farming and eliminate chemical runoff that contaminate the streams, rivers and environments they reside in. At Princeton, by cultivating in their vertical farm, water use for a head of lettuce decreased from 50 gallons of water to only 0.5 gallons of recycled water. A driving force in the growth of vertical farming can also be attributed to the advancement of LED technology which allows for controlled lighting 365 days a year, while mitigating the uncertainty of sunlight due to weather, seasons and geography. Yet, despite the recent expansion of vertical farming, there is still limited public data on the application. This drove Dr. Gauthier to launch Princeton’s hydroponics Vertical Farming Project. “We want to create new knowledge in the field,” Dr. Gauthier said. “We want to prove that this is sustainable.”
Dr. Gauthier and his students are working to answer many of the industry questions surrounding long-term viability of vertical farming. They are evaluating energy and water consumption, environmental optimizations, and financial planning. By working with a variety of crops outside of just leafy greens, Dr. Gauthier is evaluating how to feed communities on a larger scale. “The reason I am focusing on a variety of crops other than leafy greens is that we can’t feed the world on just lettuce. In order to be able to feed the world using vertical farming, as a lot of people are claiming, we have to be able to change peoples’ appetites. ” said Gauthier.
In the Geoscience department, Dr. Gauthier also aims to better understand how plants maintain the delicate balance between storing energy (photosynthesis) and releasing energy (respiration) as changes in light intensity, temperature and CO2 levels brought on by climate change affect development. Under this research, the team deployed custom Fluence lighting systems to apply several light intensities to plant leaves to promote photosynthesis. By analyzing the gases coming in and out of the chamber, the team is able to assess its overall ability to uptake and release carbon. The ultimate goal is to identify the optimal conditions for growing food indoors, while also positioning Princeton University as a leader in the rapidly expanding industry in terms of technology and training future generations to cultivate sustainably and efficiently.
When conducting research under LED grow lights, what particularly stood out to Dr. Gauthier was the incorporation of a broad spectrum in Fluence lighting solutions, which is essential for optimal secondary metabolite production. “We need extremely precise light intensity. We need to be able to increase or decrease light by as little as one micromole. We also need very precise spectra in the visible light range (400 – 700 nm). Many LEDs are either too rich in red or too rich in blue when plants need both red and blue in the right balance.” Low heat emission is also critical to his studies, “we need to make sure that the heat radiation reaching the leaf isn’t too great. Being able to control leaf temperature is challenging and limiting heat radiation is critical.” With Fluence LED systems, they were able to overcome these barriers compared to conventional light sources.
Their focus is getting the best harvest with the least amount of resource consumption, and by making the data publicly available, other researchers may be able to work towards cultivating food efficiently to feed a growing population. By deploying SPYDRx PLUS, the team saw significant improvements in energy efficiency, crop quality and yield. By cultivating in their vertical farm, resource consumption decreased and students were able to study multiple crops at once. There is no doubt farming practices are evolving just as quickly as our environment, yet many questions remain and the answers are being uncovered by studying something as small as the quantum of light. Stay up to date on the latest research and findings of Dr. Gauthier’s lab by visiting http://scholar.princeton.edu/ppg