It’s nearly impossible to walk by the new Controlled-Environment Lighting Laboratory in the Plant and Soil Sciences Building at Michigan State University without peeking inside. Flashy streams of colorful light beam into the hallway, beckoning passersby to look through the windows on what could arguably be the most healthy-looking lettuce and kale around.
The space is the first of its kind at MSU, allowing faculty, staff and students an opportunity to study vertical farming—the practice of growing food and other specialty crops in vertically stacked layers or inclined surfaces, as well as integrating crop production in other structures.
Scaling Up Plant Production
Erik Runkle, professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture, developed CELL to conduct research on controlled-environment production of high-value specialty food crops.
“Vertical farming is potentially suitable for crops that are produced quickly, have high value, are perishable, are small and have a large harvestable index,” says Runkle. “This includes leafy greens, such as lettuce, arugula and kale and herbs such as basil and mint, as well as ornamental transplants for the floriculture industry and field transplants for the vegetable industry.”
The concept is not that new, but the industry is just beginning to emerge in the United States, where people increasingly want locally sourced, healthy and fresh food.
“Vertical farming has only recently started to scale up,” says Qingwu (William) Meng, one of Runkle’s doctoral students. “It’s a small fraction of agriculture in the U.S. and globally. As a result, it hasn’t contributed a lot to the whole economy these days. But, we’ll have to feed two billion more people in the next 30 years. We really need to think about alternative ways of growing food and providing food to people in need.”
A strong advocate for science communication, Meng says he believes this lab layout—easily viewed and accessible—can help with the public’s acceptance of new technologies and scientific advancements, such as vertical farming.
The laboratory consists of two independently controlled and refrigerated growth rooms filled with stacked shelves of plants grown hydroponically—with recirculated water and no soil.
State-of-the-art light-emitting diodes developed in collaboration with OSRAM, a multinational lighting manufacturer, using OSRAM Opto Semiconductors, allow for alterations of light quality and intensity. Runkle says research conducted in CELL focuses on lighting to produce crops with desired traits such as leaf size, texture, thickness and color, as well as taste and nutritional content.
Focusing light on research possibilities
Runkle and Meng are researching the impact different LED colors and intensities have on plant growth, leaf shape and color and nutritional benefits. Eventually, they will look at ways in which lighting can improve flavor.
“We know that by modulating the light spectrum we can influence plant growth and development,” Meng says. “We can alter light quality and quantity to regulate both photosynthesis and secondary metabolism, the process where nutritional and flavor compounds are produced. These are some added benefits of growing crops indoors under LED lighting.”
Specifically, the duo is looking at ways to change plant shape and promote growth by adding green and far-red light, which we can’t see, but influences plants, to traditional blue and red light. Around four weeks after seed germination, plants will be measured for several growth attributes including yields and leaf size.
Both Runkle and Meng realize the uphill battle vertical farming faces. They say operating a vertical farming system is expensive. Although the LED lights are more efficient than traditional lights—such as fluorescents—they still consume considerable electricity and emit heat that needs to be pulled out of the room.
The team says the goal is to help steer research to help optimize the vertical farming system and make it more readily viable by producing higher quality crops with lower energy costs.
In addition to support from OSRAM, CELL is funded by MSU AgBioResearch, Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs) and the American Floral Endowment.
Representatives from CELL will participate in the MSU Science Festival on April 14. Learn more about the Growing Food Without Sunlight or Soil tours held during the campus-wide event.
By Holly Whetstone, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources