The AVF was invited to visit its member Fraunhofer IME in Aachen, Germany, one of 72 institutes of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, an organization for applied science in Europe with over 26,000 employees and various international branches around the world.
The Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME has six different sites in Germany and conducts research in the field of applied life sciences from the molecular level to entire ecosystems. Its division “Molecular Biotechnology” is located in Aachen, Germany and conducts R&D in the field of biotechnology with a strong focus on plant-based applications.
Over the last 10 years, the IME has developed and established two different vertical farming systems at the Aachen site in cooperation with the Fraunhofer IPT and IIS (à VertiPharm) as well as the Fraunhofer IML (à OrbiPlant):
VertiPharm, a fully automated vertical farm with a strong focus on different research applications (e.g. plant cultivation, plant phenotyping, biopharmaceutical production) and OrbiPlant, a novel and cost-efficient approach to vertical farming of food crops. These two vertical farming systems are complemented by LEDitGrow, an innovative multi-chamber system for the rapid development of plant growth protocols and the optimization of specific plant target values.
The design of the two IME vertical farming systems, their degree of automation, data management, efficiency and productivity, as well as their application and research possibilities go beyond the current state of the art of indoor farming technology. The systems provide an unprecedented basis to promote vertical farming, not only in Germany but worldwide. The different technology platforms are available for cooperation projects. Potential cooperation partners are encouraged to get in contact with IME.
During a facility tour AVF had the opportunity to visit the different systems that are outlined below.
LEDitGROW – Multi-parameter single plant cultivation system
A LEDitGROW unit comprises 24 single plant cultivation chambers, each equipped with various different LED-based light spectra including UVA. The unit has been designed to fit into a phytotron to run experiments at defined temperature, humidity and CO2 concentration. Each plant chamber can hold a single plant or several tissue culture petri dishes and can be individually supplied with nutrient solution.
LEDitGROW plant cultivation unit for the accelerated multi-parameter development of plant growth protocols. Credit: Ann-Katrin Beuel, IME
The parallelization of cultivation conditions together with a statistical multi-parameter design of experiment (DoE) approach allows the rapid establishment of species-specific growth recipes as well as the optimization of specific target values such as biomass, secondary plant metabolites or morphology.
VertiPharm – Automated multifunctional research platform for vertical farming
The highlight of the IME in Aachen is the fully automated, pilot-scale vertical farming research platform featuring core functionalities such as multi-tier-based vertical farming, single plant handling, sensor-based in-process control, 2D/3D plant scanning, vacuum plant infiltration, downstream processing and central data management.
Top view on VertiPharm’s vertical farming unit (above, credit: AVF) and N. benthamiana plants under LED lighting in one layer of the vertical farm unit (below, credit: Andreas Reimann, IME).
The impressive construction of the vertical farm unit consists of eight cultivation levels and provides ~550m2 of net cultivation area for the continuous or batch-wise cultivation of plants under highest reproducibility. Different parameters such as temperature, humidity, CO2-concentration, LED-based lighting and composition of the plant nutrient solution can be defined and monitored in the central control system. Each plant receives a unique ID during seeding and is tracked individually throughout the entire cultivation time until harvest. Movement, sensor and measurement data are continuously recorded and can be used for in-process control or retrospective analysis of cultivation parameters and specific plant characteristics.
Left: OrbiPlant pilot-scale system with baby leaf varieties on special substrate mats attached to the conveyor belt. Right: OrbiPlant pilot-scale system with ready to harvest salads and herbs. Credit: AVF
The fully automated facility can be used to produce food and non-food plants of different varieties and sizes. In addition to the vertical farming of plants a separate vacuum-infiltration unit connected to a fermentation suite allows the rapid production of recombinant biopharmaceuticals (e.g. vaccines, antibodies or enzymes) in plants by Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer. Thanks to this multifunctionality the plant production research platform at Fraunhofer IME enables a broad spectrum of applications in different plant-based fields but also in the field of engineering, for instance:
- Cultivation of food plants
- Cultivation of medicinal/specialty plants
- Cultivation of ornamental plants
- Production of recombinant biopharmaceuticals
- Plant breeding and plant phenotyping
- Software-based applications (e.g. digitization of production, artificial intelligence, augmented reality-assisted maintenance)
OrbiPlant – groundbreaking vertical farming system for the cost-efficient production of food crops
OrbiPlant represents an innovative approach to vertical farming of food crops that can truly make a difference to the spread and market penetration of vertical farming. The major difference to classical tier-based approaches is a continuous conveyor belt system that is flexibly arranged in vertical loops allowing the easy placement of seeds or seedlings on one end of the conveyor system and the easy harvest on the other end. In between plants grow self-sufficiently under specific LED lighting conditions that can be adapted to the respective growth stage. The conveyor belt movement can be specifically adjusted to a plant’s growth cycle and takes advantage of a growth stimulating orbitropal effect on the plant, which is stemming from the changing gravitational orientation of the plant on the conveyor belt. The water-nutrient supply is ensured by aeroponic nozzles inside the belt loops. The innovative OrbiPlant system has several key improvements over current vertical farming systems:
- High plant biomass yields and short growth cycles
- Low production costs (e.g. <0.40 € per lettuce head)
- Optimal cost-efficiency due to minimal hardware and personnel costs
- Modular conveyor belt concept easily adaptable to different plants and growth cycles as well as to different building geometries
- Improved vertical heat convection
- Low LED lighting requirement
- Flexible degree of automation depending on customer need
OrbiPlant pilot-scale system with various leafy greens and herbs on a conveyor belt. The plant size gradually increases along the four conveyor belt loops. Credit: Andreas Reimann, IME
OrbiPlant is not only providing a cost-effective, optimized production platform for food crops with minimal space and resource requirements, but its unique design and flexibility has the potential to take vertical farming to a new level. It overcomes the shortcomings of today’s most commonly used horizontal rack systems, saves energy, utilizes intelligent automation, and enables easy handling and operation.
The AVF in cooperation with the Fraunhofer IME welcomes company and stakeholder inquiries on the presented systems.
Christine Zimmermann-Lössl, AVF Chairwoman
Marvin Spence, AVF Project Manager