This Quebec City-based team is developing an advanced aeroponic device incorporating CycloFields’ rotating carousels that revolves plants around fixed LED lights and water mists. The promise of this sustainable ‘VertBerry’ approach is that it will dramatically improve the efficiency of climate control and light use in the production of all manner of fruits and vegetables—and the quality, too.
VertBerry: Proof of concept of an integrated aeroponic system for indoor berry cultivation.
“The whole picture is important to us,” says Martine Dorais, professor of plant science and a researcher at the centre de recherche et d’innovation sur les végétaux at Université Laval. “We’re going to show the consumer that if indoor growing is well done, the quality will be there.”
Dr. Dorais has teamed up with long-time collaborator Steeve Pepin, professor of environmental plant physiology at Laval, and industry partner CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology, to pioneer an integrated aeroponic strawberry production system for year-round harvests. Aeroponics puts a twist on conventional hydroponics—where roots are immerged in water—by hanging plants and spraying their roots with nutrients. The team’s VertBerry system levels up this method, suspending strawberry plants on CycloFields’ rotating carousels that slide along overhead rails while sprinklers mist their dangling roots with water at regular intervals. The plants revolve around LED lights that have variable wavelength ranges and intensities with a well-designed HVAC system, which produces a more uniform microclimate, and therefore, fruits of higher quality. The growing walls can be easily moved into a central space for harvesting, cleaning, seeding, and transplanting.
The pesticide-free system has already proven effective for leafy greens. “Plants grow much faster than they do in hydroponic systems,” says chemical engineer Éric Deschambault, president of CycloFields, who co-founded the company with his son Antoine at the beginning of Covid. “You release less waste, and you can stack the plants higher.”
The Laval team, along with CycloFields’ agronomist Benido Claude Davy Belem, will study optimal growth conditions for plants, drawing upon the bioclimatology expertise of Dr. Pepin and Dr. Dorais’ decades of research into sustainable growing systems. Multiple strawberry varieties will undergo trials to perfect lighting, irrigation, biostimulants, and temperatures. Using high-performance F1 seeds—first-generation seeds after cross-pollinating two different parent plants—the team will also optimize plant traits, such as germination rates, photosynthesis, carbon partitioning, fruit yield, and nutritional quality. Root development and productivity of raspberry and blueberry plants under aeroponic conditions will also be studied.
The operation will use precision LED lights and an energy-efficient dehumidification system to minimize energy consumption. Aeroponics will ensure that a minimum of water and fertilizers are used to grow the pesticide-free berries. All those aspects, along with the use of green energy, will align the project with sustainable development. “The focus in agriculture used to be productivity and then quality,” Dr. Dorais says. “Now it’s also the environmental footprint of our system. We have to get to carbon neutrality or close to zero.”
“If we are able to do more, we can do less.”
Mr. Deschambault notes that learning how to grow strawberries sustainably indoors will develop tools that can be applied to a range of crops, many of which are less demanding. “My father always told me, if you are able to do more, you’re able to do less,” Mr. Deschambault says. “Strawberries are so complicated that if we can meet this challenge, we can do a lot of new things.”
- Éric Deschambault, eng., CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology Inc.
- Benido Claude Davy Belem, agr. MSc, CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology Inc.
- Antoine Deschambault, CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology Inc.
- Christian Desjardins, CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology Inc.
- Vincent Fortin-Coderre, CycloFields Indoor Farming Technology Inc.
- Thi Thuy An Nguyen, PhD, Université Laval