Growing lettuce: We are the new farmers

The Food Computer is a specialized growing chamber in which climate, energy, and plant growth are controlled and monitored. Jonas Günther, Omar Gowayed, Selim Senocak, and Will Nodvik, recipients of the Prototyping Fund, are disrupting urban farming at NYU.

The Makerspace at NYU is now home to a laboratory refrigerator that was once used to store laboratory technology in one of the university's many science labs. Today, the fridge is being used for a unique urban farming project that has captured the attention of many. When asked about the origins of the refrigerator, Jonas Günther, a graduate student in the Executive Management of Technology program at the Tandon School of Engineering and founder of the Food Computer project, admits that they don't know where it came from. They purchased it from outside and only realized later its original purpose. To learn more about how every step is calculated and measured to implement this once-laboratory fridge that is being used for urban farming, read this blog here.

Food-Computer-2The mini-farm tries to find a new solution to the challenges of food production. A growing global population, increasing urbanization, and a greater awareness about where our food comes from are changing consumer demand. The production side, however, is characterized by scarce fresh water and land resources and an increasing need for fertilizers and pesticides to facilitate productivity. “We cannot continue to produce food the way we do today. This is why we started the Food Computer Project”, says Günther.

A Food Computer can be described as a specialized growing chamber in which climate, energy, and plant growth are controlled and monitored. The controlled-environment agriculture platform uses automation systems to regulate climate variables such as air temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, dissolved oxygen, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature to create the perfect conditions for plant growth.

Plants grown under different climate conditions may vary in size, taste, and nutrient content. Each specific set of conditions can be thought of as a crop recipe, and each recipe produces unique results. As plants react to environment challenges, such as drought and wind, Food Computers can even program stresses to create wanted outcomes.

Omar Gowayed knows the challenges of providing the plants with the right growing conditions well. He has a degree in Materials Science and Engineering from Ohio State University and is currently a Ph.D. in Materials Chemistry at NYU. He explains: “We learned a lot during the first stage of the project and we are happy that the prototyping fund supports us in the second stage again. Without the fund, we wouldn’t be where we are. We hope to contribute to the recent rise of vertical farming.”

The term “vertical farming” has not been around long, but it is gaining traction with the opening of several startups in the New York metropolitan area. It refers to a method of growing crops in vertically stacked layers inside an environmentally controlled building. By growing in a controlled environment and by developing “crop recipes” the yields have the potential to be more nutritious and to have more flavor than conventional indoor yields without the ethical challenges of genetic manipulation and the waste of resources of conventional agriculture.

“When we harvested our crops for the first time, the taste was incredible. I am used to very strong, flavorful arugula from back home. The produce we got, tasted exactly the same!” reports Selim Senocak, Turkish graduate student of Industrial Engineering and the third member of the team. “It is just great to see that something you worked on for quite some time, finally works out.”

The next milestone will be the prototyping fund showcase in April when the team will present their project to the public. However, they are already planning their next steps. The group wants to apply for the Green Grant and develop a more sustainable solution. The new team member Will Nodvik, a Computer Engineering undergraduate student at NYU, will help achieve this goal. With that said, the team is open to more support. “The future of food concerns everyone and we are inviting everyone to help us. Technology is key to grow better food.” encourages Günther.