A future based on 3D farming
Mar. 27, 2015 – People keep asking me what a physics major thinks about of the “going green” discussion. Right now, I’m thinking about 3D farming. Currently we farm on a two-dimensional basis, however, 3D manufacturing is coming into its own and, I believe, coming up fast. This gets its impetus from the existing hothouse businesses growing specialized plants.
We assume that eventually all material growing will be controlled by automatic environmental assumptions. By this, I mean the environment will be adapted to the plant, not the plant to the environment. With automation controlling lighting and humidity we can get a significant amount of growth using only electric power.
This power problem is real. We have designed the lighting for narrow-banded LED transmitted light. These frequencies are widely available on the Web. We have to be able to consider from 480 nm to 680 nm as a light source. I assume this combination could be narrowed to quantum bands. The plants don’t need illumination on all energy bands in the photon stream, just the ones they’re designed to receive. We can imagine single frequency lasers tickling the leaves are antigen receptors in the plants. To optimize growth at minimum power using these techniques, we should be able to have buildings in the city that will grow fresh material suited for the consumer instead of the shipping expert.
This environment will be controlled constantly for stress, temperature, humidity, food (carbon dioxide) and presumably simulating sunrises, sunsets and the different seasons. I’m not sure we need all this, but the fact that we can means that we will. The concept of matching the environment to the existing plant is the key. We don’t have to try to make the plant match the available natural environments, but we can feed them what they like. The human, for example, modifies its environment by evolving the environment into something compatible with what we are.
Since we are now, or soon will be, able to grow any plant conceivable, flying in flowers from South America for your wife’s birthday will be a thing of the past. The flowers will be grown at the supermarket and not on another continent; the transportation will electric and through the electronic grid.
The cost of the physical transportation is high. I don’t care how cheap gasoline becomes, not shipping the plants is the real answer. We do much of this already with chicken houses, hothouses and research laboratories — all in controlled environments. For example, tomatoes can be soft again and not hard to survive the shipping process. Raspberries will become a popular berry, I think.
How will we do all this? If we can run hothouses, wheat farmers and manufacture automobiles with automation technology, we should have a hot market for innovation. I could envision an overhead LED special lamp costing about $0.10 an hour to control all illumination cycling, season stress, humidity and all the things that make for growth, and it will run on electricity.
Luckily, despite the U.S. approach to atomic power, we will have adequate electricity in every country in the world, even if not in the U.S. With full automation, the farmer can take a day off. (When I was a mere child of 40 or so, the farmer could not leave the farm.) Illegal growth techniques make environmental controls small and available in every garage in this country. Growth would be local and a full process.
To some extent, we must genetically modify the environment, not the plant. That makes us efficient since we will not have much social resistance to environmental concerns.
The technology that made Detroit and Silicon Valley will be used in the food business. We will be moving Detroit technology to the needs and technologies of farming. These are five- to 20-year growth projections.
The quantum states of leaves, chlorophyll physics and the growth process are something beyond the scope of this column, but I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about that in the near future. In the meantime, we need to market this change in a positive way so we don’t get the NIMBY (not in my backyard) reaction.
Economics will change the cities. The World Wide Web and electric power over the next 50 years is coming. I hope the leaders of this promising technology recognize the health and prosperity and all the other things that make for economic growth. We will not run out of food with enough electricity.
This column previously appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.