GelPonics project aims to decarbonise hydroponics

CHAP is delighted to announce the launch of a new project to develop an autonomous, hydroponic system centered around a novel hydrogel growing media.

The GelPonics project is a collaboration between start-up AEH Innovative Hydrogel and CHAP, supported by the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC) of Manchester University, Grobotic Systems and CHAP partner Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC).

The project, which launched on 1st September 2020, is funded by Innovate UK’s Transforming Food Production challenge: ‘Science and Technology into Practice’ and will run for a total of 26 months.

Hydroponic systems generally use a substrate, such as rock wool, coir or peat, to support plant roots and facilitate water and nutrient uptake. As all these substrate options are unsustainable, they tend to be the largest contributor to the carbon footprint of vertical farming or glasshouse production. With global controlled environment production expanding significantly, alternatives need to be sought that can decarbonise agriculture while meeting grower specifications and, crucially, competing on price.

GelPonics technology can improve the sustainability of production and, by optimising inputs and crop resilience, cut operational expenditure. As well as being recyclable, the hydrogel product can be reused locally as a soil amendment to help sequester carbon. It also has substantial export potential in dry form to countries with water scarcity.

The project will be delivered in three principal phases. Phase 1 will optimise the hydrogel formulation and shift-changer nutrient delivery system, encompassing a state-of-the-art graphene membrane, alongside comprehensive industry analysis.

Phase 2 will focus on prototyping trials in CHAP’s Vertical Farming Development Centre, and STC’s LED Tomato Glasshouse, to optimise plant growth within the GelPonics system. System development will combine sensors with automation to create a fully automated rig for the hydrogel substrate, integrated with renewable energy.

Phase 3 will deliver a full, semi-commercial trial of the GelPonics system for both leafy green and tomato production, as well as demonstrating the technology and its potential for low-carbon horticulture.

CHAP Innovation Network Lead Dr Harry Langford said: “There is a significant market demand for more sustainable hydroponic substrates. This project is an exciting opportunity to optimise and scale-up a novel hydrogel product and demonstrate this product directly to the end-user, within a state-of-the-art, automated production system”.

AEH Innovative Hydrogel Founder Dr Beenish Siddique said: “The two unique selling points of the GelPonics system are the hydrogel itself, which has a significant water-holding capacity and is both recyclable and reusable, and the ‘shift-changer’ system, that uses graphene technology for precision nutrient delivery to the plant roots”

AEH Innovation Hydrogel Senior System Engineer Dr Richard Fields said “We will create an automated farm, purpose built for housing the GelPonics system. Through this we can optimise growth conditions for foods: improving yield, minimising energy consumption and reducing CO2 emissions. The unique combination of automation and sensor driven farming will allow us to intelligently manage plant growth and rapidly adjust to changes in supply and demand for different food types.”


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