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Invented Arizona, Episode #8: Bringing Outside Farming In with the V-Hive Green Box

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Welcome to Invented Arizona! I’m Paul Tumarkin and I’m Taylor Hudson. We’re with Tech Launch Arizona, the office of the University of Arizona that commercializes inventions stemming from research. With over seven billion people living on the planet, concerns are growing when it comes to locally grown food and excessive land use. So Taylor, who are we talking with today who can help us understand this problem and more importantly help solve it? Today we’re talking with Joel Cuello, a professor in agriculture and biosystems engineering who’s developed the V-Hive Green Box, a modular system that maximizes cultivation efficiency by growing plants vertically. Cool! So Joel let’s start by talking about the massive growth were experiencing here on earth and how that affects agriculture in the modern day. So the world population we’re now at about 7.5 billion and by 2050, the middle of the century, will go up to about 9.5 billion. So that would be like adding another China and another India to our current planet in terms of population, and that’s a lot of mouths to feed three times a day. The United Nations made projections that for us to be able to meet that demand food production has to double by 2050 and crop production, I’m sorry, food production has increased by 70% and crop production has to double by 2050. Um and already we’re already using about half of the arable land on the planet. Agriculture is already responsible for about 70 to 80 percent of all freshwater withdrawals and agriculture is responsible for about 30 percent of total energy expenditure on the planet; food and the supply chain. So with all of these resources that are already being allocated for agriculture for the current output, its a big challenge. It’s a grand challenge to find the resources to be able to double food production by 2050. And at the same time of course we have the effects of a regular climate which exacerbates food production because of the unpredictability in the climbing. And then there’s also the shift of population from the rural areas into the cities, which is one of the big motivations for this as well. In 2010 for the first time in human history the proportion of the global population living in cities exceeded that living in rural areas. And by 2030 that the proportion is going to increase about sixty percent. And by 2050 that is going to be over 70 percent. So in other words, even though cities occupy only about 4 to 5 percent of the planets land area, You’ve got this concentration, huge concentration, of populations in them but in a way that is good because you’ve got this concentration of people and within cities there’s proper infrastructure in terms of treating and reusing water in terms of producing renewable energy. So in a way cities are also ideal because of the presence of these resources in some forms of agriculture, which of course is urban agriculture and has a big place in terms of providing solutions to meeting the increased demand for food production. And one of these solutions is your invention the V-Hive Green Box, which is currently being housed in a shipping container as an example of its modularity. How does the V-Hive differ from other vertical farming solutions? Uh and now normally urban agriculture in cities they can be grown in greenhouses, but there is this a trend now to grow them in what is known as vertical farms where the crops are grown hydroponically or aeroponically. In that way you’re able to reduce water requirement by 80 to 90 percent compared with open field production. And if you’re using solar photovoltaics, you’re also going to reduce dramatically the energy requirement, sometimes even up to 100%. So the shipping container that we’re growing downstairs we call it the Arizona Green Box. The principle behind that is that it’s an example, a demonstration, of a modular form of vertical farm. One thing that I’ve been promoting to the industry is a model, or is a paradigm for vertical farm, which is known as minimally structured modular prefabricated vertical farm. And a shipping container is just one example of that modular unit for that paradigm of vertical farm. And so one question that we had in mind is okay, so we’ve got this modular volume or growing unit. How do we really maximize or optimize its productivity? And the answer to that is being able to use every part of the volume so that no volume of space is wasted. And that is why we came up with this cultivation system, which we refer to as the V-Hive Green Box. So its a three-dimensional cube where you have lighting boards, and we’ve gotten growing boards and the idea really is to be able to use the entire volume of the modular unit for production so that no volume of space is wasted. So in other words your crop production per unit volume is really optimized at most points. And at the same time we’re planning on using solar photovoltaics to support that modular unit. We’re here in Arizona – We’ve got abundant sunlight so might as well utilize that so that we can have 100% of our electricity being solar to provide support. And we’re using hydroponics too so it’s very efficient in terms of water consumption and we’re able to save up to 80% compared to open field cultivation. When it comes to implementing the V-Hive in cities, do you envision it being something individual growers can have in their apartments? Or maybe a whole high-rise dedicated entirely to V-Hive units? In reality you can go both ways. Either have a smaller unit of this for domestic use – you know on the household basis. But really to to make significant economic impact and to make significant contribution in terms of the food supply it would be ideal or better to have this in a large scale, even in a warehouse type of setting. So right now, we’re using a shipping container, which is relatively small, but you can actually use the same design in a warehouse type of environment. And then you’ll be able to really make use of the volume to maximize production Obviously creating more local and sustainable food sources within cities is a huge advantage, but what are the other advantages of this technology? The one thing is well this we going for us in terms of this design is that it really lends itself to automation So we’ve got these parallel boards, growing boards and lighting boards, and we need to pull them out manually right now with our current prototype, but all of that can be automated. And robots can be used as well for harvesting and then for gathering the produce and then transporting them to another unit for, not for washing them but maybe for packaging. So it really lends itself to a highly efficient warehouse type of vertical farming operation Well, thank you Dr. Cuello! And thank you for that great interview, Taylor. For more information about this technology and all the other great inventors and inventions from the University of Arizona visit Tech Launch Arizona on the web at techlaunch.arizona.edu. We are @TechLaunchAZ on Twitter and you can also find us on Facebook and LinkedIn. And we invite you to subscribe to our monthly newsletter for stories, updates and events from around the University of Arizona innovation ecosystem. You can find that at bit.ly/tla-subscribe. So we hope to see you next month for our next edition of Invented Arizona! Thanks for listening!

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