Green tech: Is aeroponics the future of farming?

Aeroponics has grown in popularity in recent years. The method has been extensively researched by NASA and applied by Elon Musk's brother, Kimbal. Just why is aeroponics considered the future of farming?

The future of farming is vertical. Just ask Elon Musk’s brother, Kimbal. In the last few years, Kimbal Musk has realized that traditional farming methods are outdated and new ways needs to be considered in light of the growing urbanization of the world and climate change.

Green tech is definitely on the rise, but what has the situation been like in the area of farming?

One of the most significant farming methods that has remained rather incognito is called aeroponics (Greek for aer “air” + ponos “labor”).

Before we begin! If you’re looking to dig deeper into the area of aeroponics, we highly recommend Aeroponics: 1st Edition by Thomas Gurley. Pick it up on Amazon here.

Photo credit: Zoe Schaeffer

What is aeroponics?

Aeroponics is a method of growing plants without any soil, or any substrate at all, for that matter. To put it simply, this is a method in which the roots remain hanging in the air rather than in water, as in the case of hydroponics (which is another method that uses water). While remaining in the air, the roots are constantly sprayed with nutrient solutions using special nozzles.

For each plant, the composition of the solution varies, as well as the number of waterings per day. The process can be completed indoors with no direct access to sunlight. Since this process utilizes a relatively small area, it avoids problems that inevitably arise with the soil, namely: weeding, dirt and diseases.

Why is aeroponics growing in popularity among farmers?

Farmers are increasingly becoming interested in high-tech ways of growing. But this is not some hipster move, but has to do with automation, control and efficiency. Growing plants with the method of aeroponics makes this process of cultivation fully automated with flexibility to change the settings for the required irrigation, lighting and climate. It can be done indoors and has already been applied in urban areas, which makes it a popular choice for city farmers.

Aeroponics has also become a notable method due to climate change and global warming. Cold, harsh-climate countries have increasingly looked at ways to utilize this system to combat the adverserial conditions that may pose a threat to their future agricultural needs.

Traditional agriculture has never been at the mercy of such harsh conditions and various countries such as Norway, Sweden, Russia, Iceland and Canada that have cold and harsh climates during the winter have seen imports grow during times when it’s been difficult to overcome.

Keeping imports high can be detrimental to the economy and in extreme cases such as Iceland, almost all products are imported from elsewhere throughout the year. Living a sustainable way of life through aeroponics systems, not in reliance of imports, that have proved to be costly, can be a solution to this problem.

Aeroponics-based greenhouse systems are needed due to the many drawbacks of the traditional field. Due to the fact that we have become accustomed to traditional forms of agriculture, we have stopped questioning its very existence. We expect the traditional forms to be remain as solid as a rock. After all, we’ve been cultivating the Earth for millions of years.

What if there was a larger-scale aeroponics system based in more remote regions of the world and where such a system was implemented on a grander scale? One that had a significant impact on the national economy of a country as a whole. This would alleviate these concerns significantly.

Evolvera visits an aeroponics installation on the Volga River.

The roots of aeroponics: NASA

In the 1990s, NASA began to study aeroponics. Richard Stoner was the scientist who developed the first installation capable of automatic irrigation in isolated spaces. You may guess where this is going since it has to do with NASA. That’s right, space.

Stoner tried to make a system where you could not only grow crops in space, but also do away with chemical fertilizers. It was a success.

Since 1998, the system began to be developed for space conditions. Because of the fact that aeroponics requires a minimal amount of water, this became the method of choice.

More recently, however, another government entity has been experimenting with the system.

The U.S. Air Force recently funded a study to determine the potential use of plant-growing technology developed by NASA to feed troops in remote areas. This was reported by SpaceNews on March 16.

Eden Grow Systems and Rhea Space Activity announced that they won a contract to study the possibility of using aeroponic technology to grow food in inhospitable areas where some units of the U.S. Space Force (USSF) are deployed. The contract was awarded as part of the first phase of the Small Company Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

Photo credit: Markus Spiske

Aeroponics – the future of farming?

Almost a decade ago, a team attempted to set up an aeroponics system on a budget and doing so while conducting research in the field at the same time. Powers (2016) and her team investigated the uses of aeroponics systems in cold climates. The results showed that the investment in such a system could be fully sustained in a cold climate. The only problems were, as speculated, infrastructure and transportation issues. Rugged terrain and distanced supply chains make this whole process a lot more complicated. While aeroponics itself is a great solution, getting to that solution is the problem.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, an indoor farm implementing aeroponics systems was set up. It showed that space and water was saved and similarly eliminated any problems with insects. As mentioned, for colder climates, it has to do with the capital and difficulty implementing the operation itself. As the world becomes more globalized and cities expand – will we see similar results in these regions?

We’ve seen investment in this area coming from Russia, the Nordics and North America, but what’s interesting is also to get a scope on individuals that are setting up sustainable systems on a budget and the results are promising.

One such individual set up a pure aeroponics operation in 2015 and has had a lot of success. It functions all year round, which could be a lesson to these countries. If more capital is invested in greenhouses and aeroponics operations, we can reach some truly interesting heights.

In this way, it’s safe to say that aeroponics does reach our stamp of approval as a complementary method to traditional forms of farming in the future.

To learn more about aeroponics systems and green tech, Aeroponics by Thomas Gurley is currently available as an affiliate-link on Amazon here.

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