|MS-Paint Art by me. :P|
Hydroponic and other soilless food production methods are already important for our society's sustainability, as you can increase the crop yield per acre of plants as many times as you want by growing them closely together indoors and stacking them up in many layers. More importantly, this has the added benefit that crop yields are far more reliable than traditional agriculture, as the growing areas can be sealed from pests and their growing climate controlled to a high degree, and as a closed system there is no runoff fertiliser or pesticide to poison our waterways.
|Proposed Vertical Farms - Wikimedia Commons|
Provided a pipeline of water from coastal desalination, or the likes of the Great Manmade River in Libya that was doing so well until a couple of rogue nations recently considered haphazardly firing Depleted Uranium munitions there, it would be entirely possible to grow food hydroponically in the middle of the sahara desert, with the huge power generated by solar panels there, and where their partial shade stops the soil from being baked in the sun, start Greening the Desert like the Permaculture Research Institute have already proven they can do.
But enough of that contemplation. A main advantage that seems to be added by this particular method is the speed of plant growth. Apparently by constantly rotating the plants about once every 30-45 minutes, the plant is constantly fighting against gravity and righting itself towards the light, as this stimulus is on the edge of the reaction time of about 10-12 minutes observed in plants. By causing the growth-promoting auxins that the plant generates in tropism to be repeatedly and evenly distributed on both sides of the plant, this causes the plant to grow strong and fast.
I'd like to do my own experiments to confirm this, since I'm relying on commercial info.
So far, a few small-to-medium firms in the USA and Canada have been touting their own solutions to this concept, variously named the OmegaGarden, RotoGro and B-Pod. The first company seem to have received the most press so far, and they did a case study with one of their systems, the 'Carousel', in which basil was grown in a few 8ft long cylinders, under a total 6 KiloWatts of lighting from CFL's, and produced 900lbs of basil leaf in 4 weeks, at a cost of 3.7kWh/lb, or about £0.20/kg here, assuming £0.12/kWh for electricity. I don't know about you, but the cheapest I've seen Basil going for recently on this island was £14.50/kg for bags of dried leaf, due to the huge cost of importing the stuff from sunnier climes. We're talking about fresh herbs here, which are much more expensive on the open market.
|A delicious sea of green - OmegaGarden.com case study.|
So, I've been talking to people for months about the idea of producing a modular version of this system that could be produced cheaply using CNC tools in such a way that it could be flat packed and easily assembled wherever desired. A few weeks ago I got to throwing conceptual ideas around with another creative fella called Jay, who admins the new site rbewiki.org, and came up with the idea that it would actually be more convenient to put plants into a rotating cylinder as a series of narrow rings that could be attached together, rather than loading beams holding the plants onto a cylinder of pre-determined length.
The main advantages of such a design are that it's much easier to keep the cylinder's center of gravity in the middle, and the user can easily define the size of their unit by however many rings they want to put on.
So very recently after finishing my course and getting my reprap together, I set to designing such a system. At first I was looking at making segments out of 2 main parts that would bolt together, with one flat side opposite another with slim beams sticking up from it. I soon realised that not only was such a design horrible to print, but it would could end up using hundreds of bolts just to keep each ring together. Eventually a spark of inspiration at 2am led to this:
|Brown Rockwool Cube faded for a better view.|
The biggest problem before had seemed to be deciding on a drivetrain for the system, and whether there would be some complicated mechanism of belts or chains going on in order to achieve the right speed of rotation. That was, of course, until I found that someone had thrown out a broken halogen heater after the last winter, and with my usual determination for salvage, I found what was wrong with it, and noticed a wonderfully useful part within.
|They break. What else do you expect from something corporate-made priced at £10?|
|Danger, danger! High voltage!|
With some more design work I have this together so far:
|Universal motor mounting on the top-right of the base, difficult to see here.|
Next I'm going to design a mount for the lights, and a tray to hold nutrient solution. Other developments to consider are, how many rings can the motor handle at full growth, and can tightly packed pebbles serve as a re-usable hydroponic medium in this setting, or would they end up bruising the roots?
You can keep track of my current design development for this project here on Thingiverse.