Posted October 5, 2015

A farm in your kitchen

A German startup is working on a tabletop 'vertical farming' machine that can produce all the vegetables a small family needs, every day. The device will be on sale sometime next year. Sounds like you could use one in space, right?

Vertical farming is the idea that you can use precious agricultural land much more efficiently if you stack fields on top of one another. You could have many fields instead of one, on the same surface area. If you do, of course you can't use natural rainfall. Light will be a problem too, so you will have to meet the needs of your crop artificially. But there's an upside to this: the land that you place your agricultural highrise building on doesn't even have to be fertile! All you need is a floor.

Thinking further outside the box, your field doesn't have to be the size of what most people would picture as a field. Everything can be inside of a box.

That's what a couple of students at HAS University  in Den Bosch, the Netherlands decided to design about three years ago. The company they founded is called Agrilution and is now based in Munich, Germany. Their main product is called the PlantCube and it's the size of a small fridge (60x60x90 cm). Inside are two drawers that you can grow your veggies in.

'The PlantCube can produce about 200 grams of vegetables a day,' says Maximilian Loessl, founder and CEO of Agrilution in a Skype conversation. 'An average person needs 400 grams, but since we can control circumstances in the PlantCube, we can reach higher nutrutional values and 200 grams should be enough for two adults and a small child.'

Inside the cube all circumstances are controlled, such as nutrients, water and temperature. 'For ventilation we exchange air a couple of times a day,' explains Loessl. 'If we had continuous ventilation, we would lose too much water.' Plants need CO2 to grow as well, and control of CO2 content of the air will be added soon. Light is supplied by LED lamps, which are energy efficient and don't add too much heat. According to Maximilian Loessl the PlantCube will use 200W of power, about the same as a desktop computer.

Which kinds of vegetables can you grow? 'At this point, mainly leafy greens, like rucola,' says Loessl. You can, even should, grow combinations of vegetables, but only in groups that require more or less the same circumstances. Loessl: 'Not rucola and basil  together, because rucola likes lots of light while basil needs night.' Agrilution will sell refill seed supplies with preselected groups that grow together nicely. The company will select species that grow fast but stay small, so they don't outgrow the box they live in. Right now they are looking at lettices and herbs. Later there will be selections with tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries, for instance. Bigger Plantcubes will be on sale in the future.

How about the space angle? This story sounds like part of the answer to our recent one about space-grown lettuce. Apparently you can grow - on Earth at least - enough vegetables for a crew of six in almost exactly one cubic meter (do the math!). Loessl stresses the PlantCube is designed for use on Earth but he is working with the German space agency on this.

For now, Loessl can't tell when the PlanCube will hit the market or how much it will cost. Launch should be sometime next year.

About Herbert Blankesteijn

Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.