Feel-good story about the future of vertical farms

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/01/05/feel-good-story-about-the-futu.html

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Just for the counter argument: http://www.treehugger.com/green-architecture/vertical-farms-wrong-so-many-levels.html

I really don’t know enough to argue either way on this one.


I think, like most things, you need to think location-specific.

If you have a bunch of fields around, and appropriate, great year round climate, then use them to grow crops, easy.

What if you don’t?

  • What if you live in a hilly/mountainous area without large access to fields but massive population, like some areas of Asia?
  • What if you’re in a dense urban environment and would rather your food come from a local, renewable source than be trucked in from remote fields?
  • What if you live in climates with suboptimal growing seasons year-round, or climates ill-suited to growing certain crops you still want to consume?

Also! that picture looks an awful lot like a shot from inside the Living with the land exhibit in Epcot :slight_smile:

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[quote=“doctorow, post:1, topic:92338”]
There’s also a curious note about a secret process for misting or steaming the veggies that uses a proprietary and unpatented system that the inventor believes no one will ever be able to figure out, which is a claim that the writer allows to pass without comment, despite its extreme implausibility
[/quote](emphasis added)

Don’t forget “despite its extreme shittiness”. The last thing agriculture needs is another fucking tollbooth.

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Didn’t see “farms” at first, assumed the last word was “video”.


No patent, no tollbooth. He’ll probably be sorry he didn’t patent it when the competition shows him he isn’t as clever as he thinks he is.

It’s a good example of bright green tech, the kind of thing we’ll need as our population stabilizes at 9 billion – the alternative being the “de-growth” dystopia that starts with 4-6 billion people somehow departing the planet.

Really? Ecomodernism or massive population reductions? Those are the only two options? Gimme a break.

Vertical farms really are very unlikely to have a meaningful impact on food supplies. That’s probably being a bit too kind - they’re closer to a fantasy.

Take the average diet for starters - something like 10% to 15% of calories come from fruit and veg. The rest comes from meat, dairy, grains, oils, sugars etc. I sincerely doubt that we’ll have vertical dairy farms or sugar plantations.

Also think of the sun angle at peak growing times - in the middle of the day the sunshine will be coming in at an angle of about 20 degrees relative to a vertical farm vs 70 degrees for a conventional farm. And what about plants away from the edges or on the north side of the tower? Where do they get their light from?

This is the problem with the ecomodernists. They throw out these shiny, high tech “solutions” to the sustainability crisis that seem sensible on the surface but you really don’t have to scratch very hard to poke big holes in them because they really haven’t bothered to think through the problem properly.

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No patent yet.

Patent avoidance is used by some to protect their proprietary methods since they would have to include them in their patent application. Instead, they’ll probably use different legal tactics (e.g. anti-reverse engineering laws, copyright, SLAPP) to claim that any competition is acting illegally.

Really, nearly 100% of human diets come from plants. In the case of animals and animal byproducts, these animals eat the plants, and then are later themselves eaten.

The trouble as I see it is that this plant to animal conversion is extraordinarily inefficient. We could grow much more food meant for direct human consumption on the same amount of land (or very likely – less land).


Scoff all you want, but that picture looks really yummy.

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Oh sure it all goes back to plants, but the overwhelming majority comes from plants that really don’t lend themselves to vertical arrangements! As you say it’s a very inefficient way to go about getting our calories so the real key to feeding 9 billion sustainably won’t be vertical farms, it’ll be cutting back on meat consumption.


I’m really having trouble with “seeing how many people we can cram on the surface of the planet” as the Great Project of humanity. I’m more like this guy: http://www.onbeing.org/program/gordon-hempton-silence-and-the-presence-of-everything/4557


The majority of the argument there is that converting solar energy to artificial lighting is a huge inefficiency. But that’s one of those things that sounds true in theory, but in practice may not be at all.

Sunlight is actually fairly wasteful when landing on a leaf. The energy is across a wide band of frequencies, most of which aren’t used by the plant. And lots of it scatters on the earth near the plant, also unused. Finally, the solar irradiation is almost always larger than the total energy a plant could absorb, even if it were the perfect frequencies.

Solar panels turn a much higher percentage of that falling energy into electricity. By re-emitting only the frequencies best absorbed by the plants, and having a much denser planting than would be possible outdoors, and, most importantly, only providing each plant with the light it needs, you can take that huge volume of “wasted” solar energy and use it to grow many more plants.

Plants only need in the order of 10-100 W/m2 in order to grow. A solar panel, however, easily generates 200 W/m2 and more. Therefore, a 1m2 solar panel can support the needs of > 1m2 of plants, even before taking into account the spectrum efficiencies.

So if you take all the sunlight that is falling on the roof of the farm, even after you account for all the conversion losses you can still come out ahead because you’re using the remaining energy in a much more efficient manner for plant growth.


Agree 100%

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This is what I wonder about. What is the fundamental limit, given basic physics and the biology of extant crop plants, of how many square meters of plants you can grow using energy from 1 m2 of sunlight given increasingly cheap and efficient solar panels and wavelength-specific LEDs? Even with today’s technology (10-20% for panels and 10-50% of theoretical limit for monochrome LEDs AFAICT) you’d do no worse than nature and possibly 10x better.

Other potential long-term benefits: ability to prevent pests, use a controlled atmosphere (CO2, water vapor), recover transpired/evaporated water, or put your solar panels in a high-sunlight region yet grow anywhere you want. Onsite waste reuse for aquaculture or the like wouldn’t hurt either.

Cost effective? Not at all, today, and probably not for a long time if ever, in most cases. But economics and tech development are funny things. We could end up in a world where transportation energy is expensive but solar panels and LEDs are cheap, or where building construction and crop tending are fully automated (a robot farm could be much denser than a human-tended one). At the very least we should experiment with it and see what happens.


A solar panel may be able to generate 200W/m2 under ideal lab conditions but you almost never get ideal conditions in the real world. On average PV will generate about 10% to 20% of that over a year.

But do you have any references to support this assertion that you can still come out ahead through this sunlight > photovoltaics > LED > plant approach? It doesn’t sound right to me.

From what i can make out from some quick googling, plants typically convert anywhere between 0.!% and 8% (almost all at the lower end of that range) of incoming sunlight to sugars but leaves absorb a lot more light than that, much of which is lost through various processes.

About half of the incoming light frequencies aren’t used for photosynthesis, a substantial chunk of the incoming energy is used by the plant itself for respiration and other non-photosynthetic processes during growth, some is reflected, some is lost as heat through process inefficiencies, some is excess not needed by the plant and some is light which arrives outside of the growing season and a bunch of other reasons. Artificial lighting could mitigate a couple of those losses but can’t mitigate the rest.

Oh crap! Now I have that annoying “Listen to the Land” song back in my head after being banished from it since the late 80’s.

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Like the Green Revolution, which took India and China out from constant endemic famine and made them major up and comers in the developing world.