by Eula Femina Suza, Kristine Tada, and Dean Valmeo
Imagine a room where plants grow without soil or sun, thriving under just LED lights, nutrient-rich water, and a precisely-controlled environment. As dystopian as it may sound to some, this is exactly what a group of Filipino engineers and scientists is working on at the Plant Factory with Artificial Lighting Research Laboratory (PFAL) at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. PFAL is pushing the boundaries of traditional agriculture with hydroponics, coupled with digital technology, to produce crops even in urban jungles.
Tucked away in the bustling university town of Los Baños, PFAL is not your ordinary laboratory. We visited the five-square-meter space, once a portion of an ordinary classroom, that has since been converted into an airconditioned mini farmhouse. Inside, there is a carbon dioxide tank made out of storage organizers and water pails. And with how portable and “do-it-yourself” the whole setup is, one wouldn’t think it can one day revolutionize how urban households access fresh produce. There are also multi-level shelves housing the crops and three airconditioning units, maintaining the low temperature, that alternately operate 24 hours a day.
“Our AC units take turns to prevent damage,” said Keynty Boy Magtoto, Head of the university’s Agrometeorology, Bio-Structures, and Environment Engineering Division (ABSEED).
PFAL makes use of a controlled environment in growing crops, making the production more predictable than an uncontrolled setup. Studies on controlled environments are under ABSEED, where agricultural engineers research specifically about controlled environments – weather extremes and components — to yield more crop production despite natural weather conditions.
HOW IT WORKS
It is like stepping into a factory but instead of farm machinery and laborers in coveralls, you see rows of leafy vegetables and scientists in their laboratory gowns. Scientists and engineers work together to design a precisely-controlled environment where every input is measured and data is monitored to perfect the recipe for growing crops.
PFAL spoils its crops with the necessary attention and resources. Whatever the crop needs, the laboratory supplies. The environment is regulated to fit their needs, powered by sensors and state-of-the-art equipment. Its engineers and researchers check up on the laboratory from time to time. While the laboratory can autonomously handle the crops, humans still play a crucial role in the quality assurance of crops.
To mimic the natural environment of crop production that must have enriched soil, natural sunlight, air, and rain, the laboratory utilizes its equipment to not just mimic but also improve the growing environment of the crop through its equipment programmed to give the best environment for the crops.
The laboratory is soil free. It makes use of typical foam mattresses to replace the soil. These foams nurture the seedlings as they are infused with liquid form nutrients bought from a local supplier. Meanwhile, seedlings are nestled in the foam for at least seven days and then transferred to the styrofoam.
A high-density styroboard serves as the main growing bed of the crops for 24 days. Still, it is infused with liquified nutrients but this time the researchers doubled the amount of nutrients they put in the foam.
Instead of natural sunlight, PFAL makes use of three different LED artificial grow lights that are tunable. Its intensity and quality are changeable with just one click by the engineers. According to researcher Toni-An Mae Cabreros Salcedo, PFAL also wants to research more about photomorphogenesis, or the different “light intensity and spectrum”, and their effects on crop growth. Hence the different ratios and light used.
Currently, the researchers are utilizing three light settings namely fixed spectrum, cool daylight, and daylight to assess which is the better-suited light state based on the crops’ state. LED lights are used since it has a longer life span than other types of lights. While costly, it produces less heat, avoiding combustion over time. The three different lights are as follows:
According to a study about the red:blue (R:B) ratio on resource use efficiency, this plays the role of energy source that mimics the photosynthetic CO₂ absorption. In simple terms, the R:B ratio is the sponge that determines the amount of water – in this case, sunlight – for the crop to suck in.
In these light conditions, the variation of wavelengths of the red, green, and blue light affects the physiological processes of the crop. According to a study, red light causes the plant to be more reactive in terms of “leaf development, chlorophyll, and carbohydrate accumulation”, among others.
The blue light, on the other hand, aids in boosting the chlorophyll content as well as the plants’ “morphogenic responses” such as “leaf expansion and shoot elongation”. Lastly, the green light is able to better seep through the plant, enabling it to become more beneficial for the plant’s development as a whole.
Given these three types of light, and by considering their effects on crop production, the laboratory conducts different lighting experiments using the combination of different wavelengths of red, blue, and green light in order.
Under the fixed spectrum, the crop is being exposed to a high amount of red light (1.0 Relative Intensity), a fair amount of blue light (around 0.2 to 0.3 Relative Intensity), and a lesser amount of green light (around 0.1 to 0.2 Relative Intensity). On the other hand, in the daylight setting, a high amount of red light (1.0 Relative Intensity) is provided for the crops while the blue light is maintained at a lower amount (0.2 to 0.3 Relative Intensity) and the green light is still provided at the least amount (0.1 to 0.2 Relative Intensity). Lastly, the cool daylight setting includes the highest intensity for most of the light settings, having the red light at its peak at 1.0 Relative Intensity, the blue light at around 0.8 to 0.9 Relative Intensity, and the green light at around 0.4 to 0.7 Relative Intensity.
With these parameters, the crops are able to thrive in different light settings. However, its growth and development varies depending on the light intensity that it is exposed to.
It is notable that the difference between sunlight and LED lights can be found in their reliability to provide the proper duration of light exposure relative to the crop. For instance, lights are open for 16 hours since natural sunlight can be compromised due to rain or clouds, unlike artificial lighting.
Inside, there is a humidifier installed to avoid moisture build-up. It also helps balance out the room’s level of humidity since the crops have a required relative humidity.
In the case of lettuce, the laboratory’s ongoing production is 70-80% based on a study.
The water source is contained in your typical containers. PFAL uses tap water but its crucial, its researchers say, that the pH level is appropriate for the crop. Once done, water is mixed with the nutrient solution as needed. The water cycle is processed through the use of deep water culture with a measure of 5 centimeters. The water is monitored every morning to check its pH level.
Deep water culture, as explained by PFAL, is the process under hydroponics where the crops’ roots are submerged in nutrient-infused water throughout its growing cycle to ensure the quality of the crops. It is pumped continuously and the water is recycled which makes it cost-effective. Water is replenished only if the water level is decreasing. PFAL is notified thanks to the sensors installed inside the water tank.
The controlled parameter in the environment that PFAL highlights is nutrient quality. Nutrient quality is automated and present at all times. This ensures that the crops receive their needed dose of nutrients immediately. “Naiiwasan nating ma-stress yung plants kumbaga, kung manual sya itetest ko ngayon, pa’no kung off na pala? So hindi right away, nabibigay mo yung best condition,” said Dr. Magtoto.
(“We avoid stressing the plants, in a sense, if I do manual testing, what if [nutrient level] its off? So, the best condition is not given right away)
To maintain the nutrient quality supplied to the plant, PFAL makes use of the nutrient film technique. This technique makes use of one-centimeter streaming pipes that distributes the nutrient-infused water to the crop by submerging its roots in the water. The nutrient used is from a local supplier called PARJV Grosolutions and is chemical-free.
PFAL researcher Danilo Gonzales explained that the nutrients serve as a regulator for the pH level of the soil which should be maintained between 5.5-6.5.
“If the pH level is too high, nutrients will be added to lower the pH level. If it is too low, the electrical conductivity spikes,” he said.
Electrical conductivity is a factor that makes the crops more proneto stress. If the nutrients are not enough to decrease the pH level, although this rarely happens, instead of PARJV, they resort to “pH down,” a liquid nutrient from the local brand NutriHydro.
Crops at PFAL are grown at a temperature of 18 to 25 degree Celsius, the ideal temperature for growing lettuce. Three air conditioning units are placed inside: two window types and a split type. These do not simultaneously work but rather function alternately throughout the day and night, providing a suitable environment for the crops. Maintaining this temperature contributes to the ideal environmental parameters maintained by the researchers along with monitoring the relative humidity inside the room.
The controlled environment must be well-insulated. PFAL researchers have opted to use plywood for its door and walls with foam-inner and insulator foams to efficiently maintain the temperature inside. The temperature being maintained in the room varies depending on the crop that is being grown. For one, as lettuce is the crop that is currently being grown in the Laboratory, the room temperature is being maintained at around 18 to 25 degree Celsius. Pipes were also installed to block outside heat.
MAINTANING CO2 LEVEL
Carbon Dioxide (CO₂ ) is needed for photosynthesis. But in a confined space with little to no resources, where can the crops attain this crucial element? PFAL utilized this efficient technique of connecting a tube from the CO₂ tank to the electric fan. With this, enough CO₂ gas is able to circulate in the laboratory and be absorbed by the plants.
Did you know that too much Carbon Dioxide can destroy a plant? “Plants have a limit of 2000 ppm,” said Dr. Magtoto. The testing crop, lettuce, only needs, ideally, 1200 ppm of CO₂.
To maintain the 1200 ppm inside the laboratory, PFAL programmed the electric fan with a 15-minute interval with 15 minutes working time. Parts per million (ppm) is the unit of measuring the amount of Carbon Dioxide molecules compared to other molecules in the atmosphere.
HOW CAN ENGINEERING AND TECHNOLOGY BRIDGE THE GAP
Progress in agriculture introduces produce that is made available through innovation. Variation in our food choices is possible for human survival. Engineering and technology are known for advancement in machinery that aids human life. It reduces labor and offers a million possibilities that can surpass human potential.
With these, imagine what impact they would have if they collide. Fortunately, PFAL has shown a glimpse of its potential by showcasing the connection of Agriculture, Engineering, and Technology through research and instrumentation.
Research comes in through the faculty-based research project, Smart Environmental Control System (SECS). SECS, are modules bought off from the shelf that is the basis of the codes to be used in making the pieces of equipment of the laboratory. It is designed to monitor the elements controlling the environment: temperature, CO₂ the moisture in the atmosphere, and its effects.
By measuring the environmental parameters of the area: humidity level, temperature, light source, and nutrient level, research results will then be transformed into instrumentation to create the design needed to address the gaps in the results. Engineering handles the layout and design of the laboratory. Placement of the equipment, the monitoring and customization of lights, temperature, and humidity. Agriculture, on the other hand, deals with crop production and its growth process – crop weight and height. These two, hand in hand ensures quality crop production based on the man-made green thumb – its instruments that take care of the plant for the researchers even when they are not present.
RESEARCHED-BASED PAST FOR A THRIVING FUTURE
As theorized and conceptualized by the father of precision agriculture, Dr. Pierre Robert, the field thrived in the early 1990s. Along with this, Dr. Robert established extension programs and led the research on precision agriculture. In partnership with SoilTeq, he devised the term “Farming by Soil” which stands for the application of agricultural practices that adapts and converts the farm area’s condition in order to provide the ideal environment for crop production.
Together with the succession of discoveries in this subfield of agriculture, the use of the term ‘precision agriculture’ became widely used as its practice became evident due to the International Conferences on Precision Agriculture that were held in the 1990s to the early 2000s, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
However, considering that the proponent of the concept is from one of the thriving countries economically, it must be noted that ‘precision agriculture’ was an ideal concept that may thrive in first-world countries as it may be easier for them to access the technologies required in practicing the field.
From the perspective of third-world countries, on the other hand, it may be a whole different story. The Philippines is among the third-world countries that have been on the receiving end of the devastating impacts of the climate crisis. The country’s temperature has increased by 0.68 degrees Celsius, according to a 2018 study published by the Philippine Atmospheric and Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration. Global warming, coupled with bad governance and poor agricultural policies, continues to threaten the country’s agriculture — an industry that provides food on the table of about 10.6 million Filipino agricultural workers and their families.
This is why PFAL is now at the forefront of disrupting traditional farming. Precision agriculture, which observers say can revolutionize the way food can be grown, has the potential to secure food for every Filipino. By automating processes and leveraging data insights, precision agriculture has the power to predict and achieve crop yields — far beyond what humans can manually accomplish. PFAL is paving the way to a more efficient and sustainable future of farming
PFAL’S PRECISION FOR FURTHER PROGRESSION
The Plant Factory with Artificial Lighting (PFAL) Laboratory merges the disciplines of engineering and agriculture within a confined room and by practicing precision agriculture. Both disciplines’ contributions to the growth of high-value crops are manifested when discussing the integration of the design of instruments and environment in crop production.
From the perspective of engineering, as explained by the Division Head of ABSEED, Keynty Magtoto, the design of the instruments in the Laboratory is devised as it caters to the crops’ nutritional and environmental needs.
“So we’d like to characterize kasi the environment ang totoo gusto namin ibigay yung idea ng growing environment para sa crops syempre para tumaas yung quality. Before no’n bago namin mabigay, kailangan naming magmeasure yung environmental parameters dun papasok yung instrumentation.”
(“So we’d like to characterize the environment. We want to provide the ideal growing environment for the crops to improve its quality. Before that, we need to measure the environmental parameters and that’s where the instrumentation comes in.”)
Agriculture, on the other hand, focuses on the measurement of the “growth and harvesting parameters” of the crops for them to be in their best condition for harvesting. Although the researchers admitted that the initial investment for projects like this is a bit pricey for commercial use. However, the researchers of the Laboratory are looking forward to discovering a more cost-effective way for farmers to engage in precision agriculture, pushing for an increase in high-value crop production, leading to agricultural productivity.
To date, PFAL, in partnership with AGORA, has a pending proposal for a project which aims to commercialize the products. Ideally, this project aims to have the crops have a QR code that contains data about the environmental conditions where they were produced. However, as clarified by the researchers of PFAL, they are still focused on the research of precision agriculture itself and have this project in line for future implementation
AGRICULTURAL EFFICIENCY, FOOD SECURITY, ECONOMIC GROWTH: ALL IN ONE?
The pressing contradiction of agriculture being one of the industries with the smallest share in the country’s economy — but one of the leading providers of occupation for Filipinos — causes indecision on whether to focus on modernization or make do with the traditional means of farming in the country. Nevertheless, along with the progression of technology, industries, particularly agriculture, are drifted along. Given that, the development of technologies in this industry is expected to have a direct effect on its products, crops, and livestock.
For instance, Philippine Agriculture 4.0 suggests the viability of achieving farming efficiency as it offers a variety of digitalized data for farm operators. Its potential for providing real-time updates on the farm’s state may lead to improved and efficient crop production and an increased amount of income due to the better quality and value of produced crops.
Precision agricultural technologies made possible by Philippine Agriculture 4.0 is not bound by farming but also encompass livestock production, among other things. In this case, decisions relevant to creating the ideal environment for the crops and livestock are also made by the technology to sustain the provision of precise and appropriate amounts of nutrients to the crops and livestock.
More than technologies for crop and livestock production, digital platforms such as eKadiwa, Supply Chain Analytics (SCAn) Dashboard, and SCAn Reporter are also established and supported by the Philippine government to provide a means for farmers to transport their products to markets through a digital platform, and for government officials to monitor the status of the supply chain in the country through the provided data in the SCAn Dashboard. Note that these platforms were established during the height of the CoViD-19 pandemic in 2020 when food security became an issue, especially in urban areas.
Similarly, the establishment of these platforms also aids in assuring food security in certain areas due to the direct farm-to-market contact made possible by the platforms. The platforms also make it possible for urban poor areas to have access to fresh and quality produce without compromising the price for the farmers and fisherfolk.
With the existing and increasing number of platforms and widening of networks for the agricultural sector, a significant rise in the contribution to the economy may be one of the foreseen effects of these innovations. In 2020, the Department of Agriculture reported that ₱6 billion value of purchased products through these platforms was tallied and that 442 Local Government Units were partnered under this project. Provided that e-commerce is a rising industry worldwide, farm-to-table-inspired technological advancements also ensure that agricultural produce will find its way to feed each Filipino.
PFAL Researchers through face-to-face interviews and lab visitation, desk research on related articles via Science Direct, Research Gate, Frontiers, PFAL’s Official Facebook Page, Articles written by INQUIRER, from the CEAT website, and PFAL’s references used in their laboratory. Other references are hyperlinked in this story.