Michigan State University in Lansing Opens New Lab to Grow Plants Without Soil or Sunlight


Michigan State University in Lansing today announced it has opened a Controlled-Environment Lighting Laboratory where food and other specialty crops are grown in vertically stacked layers or inclined surfaces, as well as integrating crop production in other structures.

Erik Runkle, professor in the Department of Horticulture, developed the lab to research controlled-environment production of high-value specialty food crops.

“Vertical farming is potentially suitable for crops that are produced quickly, have high value, are perishable, are small, and have a large harvestable index,” says Runkle. “This includes leafy greens such as lettuce, arugula, and kale, as well as herbs such as basil and mint. There’s also ornamental transplants for the floriculture industry and field transplants for the vegetable industry.”

The industry is just beginning to emerge in the United States as the demand for fresh, locally-sourced food increases. The concept is not new in other countries.

“Vertical farming has only recently started to scale up,” says Qingwu (William) Meng, one of Runkle’s doctoral students. “It’s a small fraction of agriculture in the U.S. and globally. As a result, it hasn’t contributed a lot to the whole economy these days. But, we’ll have to feed 2 billion more people in the next 30 years. We really need to think about alternative ways of growing food and providing food to people in need.”

The lab has two independently controlled and refrigerated growth rooms filled with stacked shelves of plants grown hydroponically, or with recirculated water and no soil. Light-emitting diodes allow for alterations of light quality and intensity. Research focuses on the impact of different LED colors and intensities on plant growth, leaf shape and color, and nutritional benefits.

“We know that by modulating the light spectrum we can influence plant growth and development,” says Meng. “We can alter light quality and quantity to regulate both photosynthesis and secondary metabolism, the process where nutritional and flavor compounds are produced. These are some added benefits of growing crops indoors under LED lighting.”

Runkle and Meng are looking at ways to change plant shape and promote growth by adding green and far-red light, which can’t be detected by the human eye, to traditional blue and red light. Four weeks after seed germinations, plants will be measured for growth attributes such as yields and leaf size.

Vertical farming is expensive, say Runkle and Meng – LED lights consume considerable electricity and emit heat that needs to be pulled out of the room. However, the team hopes to help optimize the vertical farming system and make it cost efficient.

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