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Accelerating the decarbonization of hydroponic indoor farming

Trailblazing the future of indoor farming with the development of a novel hydrogel-based substrate, Gelponics, with high-water retention capabilities and crafted entirely from non-synthetic and low-carbon materials.

The three-year project, funded by Innovate UK’s Transforming Food Production challenge: ‘Science and Technology into Practice,’ set out to develop and optimize a novel and sustainable hydrogel substrate to help decarbonize the horticulture sector. The project’s emphasis on innovative hydrogel-based growing media is a crucial step forward in reducing carbon emissions and environmental impact associated with food production while also satisfying growers’ demands for quality and cost competitiveness.

The consortium was led by AEH Innovative Hydrogel and Crop Health and Protection (CHAP), with support from Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC), Grobotic Systems, and CHAP partner Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC).

The work revealed Gelponics’ potential as a cost-effective and sustainable substrate, fully meeting the specifications required for growing leafy greens in commercial hydroponic vertical farms.

In the initial stages, the project focused on optimizing hydrogel-based substrate formulations and developing sheet prototypes through comparative evaluations against existing industry standards such as stone wool or coco coir.

At CHAP’s Vertical Farming Development Centre, located at STC, five trials were executed featuring a range of crops commonly cultivated in vertical farming, including lettuce, rocket, basil, kale, microgreens, and others. Throughout these trials, germination success, plant morphology, crop uniformity, and yield were evaluated to ensure suitability for the diverse indoor grower markets of the final product.

Dr Beenish Siddique, AEH Innovative Hydrogel Founder, said: “As a startup enterprise, this collaborative project has presented us with a unique opportunity to advance the development of our substrate and conduct extensive testing at the CHAP vertical farming facility based at STC.

“The collective efforts of the consortium have yielded substantial results, culminating in the successful launch of our beta product into the market, preceding the imminent full-scale commercial release. Most significantly, AEH’s focus remains on ensuring the accessibility of our product at a competitive price point while upholding stringent sustainability criteria.”

A lifecycle analysis performed by an independent consultancy determined that AEH’s novel hydrogel-based substrate had significantly lower overall CO2 equivalent emissions than other commonly used substrates, such as stone wool or coco coir, both for its manufacturing process and when used in crop growth cycles.

Dr Harry Langford, Innovation Network Lead at CHAP, added: “Amid escalating energy costs and the urgent push for Net Zero goals, horticultural growers seek innovative solutions for ongoing operational and environmental enhancement.

“As a result, there is a significant market demand for more sustainable hydroponic optimizees. This project provided an exciting opportunity to optimize and scale up a novel hydrogel product and demonstrate its benefits directly to the end-user.”

During the project, CHAP provided key technical insights, project management support, and industry expertise to ensure the hydrogel was optimized and tailored to meet the specific grower requirements in the two targeted crop production systems.

Dr Aurélie Bovi, Innovation Sector Lead at CHAP, said: “CHAP played a crucial role in engaging key stakeholders and disseminating project updates, resulting in invaluable input and collaborations for AEH.

“This has ensured that their product is fit for purpose and has accelerated the technology’s transition to TRL 7. As a result, the product will soon be available in the market.”

To gain further insights into the project, you can view the video below, showcasing the remarkable highlights and milestones achieved during its development.

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