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Mälardalen University and Swegreen advancing spectral imaging in vertical farming

"Aqua2Farm including near-infrared spectroscopy and aquaphotomics can really contribute to the operation of an urban farm,” says Jan Skvaril, associate senior lecturer at Mälardalen University. 

Joined by his colleagues Sepehr Mousavi and Monica Odlare, Jan spoke with Vertical Farm Daily about the university’s research into urban agriculture and its partnership with Swegreen, a Swedish agtech company that manufactures in-store automated farms. Sepehr Mousavi is the Chief Innovation Officer and responsible for their R&D portfolio. Monica Odlare is a professor at Mälardalen University, focusing on circular economy. 

Mälardalen University and Swegreen started collaborating nearly three years ago after realizing that the two groups shared interests in renewable energy and the circular economy. As Jan explains, the academia-industry relationship between the two organizations is beneficial for both groups and Sweden as a whole, with “all activities leading to applied science and economic benefits that optimize plant growth.”

Aqua2Farm using aquaphotomics to measure plant response
Mälardalen University and Swegreen are partnering on multiple projects, one of which the application of spectral imaging to vertical farming. According to Sepehr, the project is based on the use of near-infrared (NIR) radiation to detect plant responses and behavior and for capacity building in regards to using technologies such as image recognition and vision diagnostics for traceability, deep learning, and quality assurance in the operation of vertical farms. 

“Our Aqua2Farm project is extending the traditional near-infrared spectroscopy approach with aquaphotomics, which was developed in Japan by a research group of Prof. Tsenkova, and looks at wavelengths related to the vibrations of hydrogen bonds in plant-bound water,” says Jan. “We can extract important information related to the health of plants from the water molecular matrix vibrations.”  

The research consortium plans to build a small testing facility equipped with hyperspectral imaging cameras that can show plant responses to different lighting conditions, nutrient concentrations, and other growth parameters. The 16-months project is relatively small and aims first to validate the concept of aquaphotomics and then to hopefully test the technique in a larger production facility. The project will be tested for a solid Proof of Concept in Swegreen's R&D unit in Stockholm and one of their testbeds. If the technology proves to be successful, it will be applied to their units in operation in different Swedish cities as a next step. 

Aside from advancing the field of spectral imaging in food production, the partnership between Swegreen and Mälardalen University is also feeding the university’s online course, Applied Spectral Imaging in Environmental Engineering. This online course is connected to the University’s Masters in Environmental Engineering for Sustainable Development.

Vertical farming could allow Sweden to diversify
As Monica explains, vertical farming will not likely replace more conventional farming methods in Sweden, such as field-based and greenhouse production. Rather, it has become another facet of the country’s agriculture section and can help reduce its reliance on imported fresh produce. 

“Sweden is dependent on imported crops, such as leafy greens, so it would be good to focus on those. We also need to improve communication with society and consumers to improve the acceptance of these products,” says Monica.

With additional projects in the pipeline expected to focus on traceability and recovery of waste materials for nutrient recovery, Monica and her colleagues are looking to bring circularity to Sweden. This project called Cirkla is one of the biggest national strategic efforts of the Swedish Innovation Agency, Vinnova, with approximately €4 million as budget, which both Mälardalen University and Swegreen are a part of. 

“In Sweden, people are already thinking of applying these technologies to build smarter cities. Working with universities allows us to introduce that to students and give back to society. Sustainability is in consumers’ DNA and Stockholm is still one of the biggest markets for vertical farming and home to leading vertical farming actors such as Swegreen,” Sepehr notes. 

For more information: 
Monica Odlare, Professor Environmental Engineering  
[email protected] 
Jan Skvaril, Associate senior lecturer
[email protected] 
Mälardalen University


Sepehr Mousavi, Chief Innovation Officer 
[email protected]