Don’t Throw Nutrients Out with the Growing Water: Making Hydroponics More Efficient

New technology promises to make hydroponics farming more effective through improved nutrient monitoring. And with support from the MIF, the team aims to bring this functionality to vertical farms worldwide

If you go to the grocery store in Montreal, you will likely buy fresh produce. Let’s say, you get a pack of Driscoll strawberries. You may not realize it, but those strawberries are grown in California and had to travel over 4,500 km to get to you, polluting the environment every kilometer of the way.

On top of the fossil fuel pollution caused by the transport of the fruit, there is also the large amount of fresh water needed for the crops. Globally, 70% of the world’s freshwater goes towards the agricultural sector, due to unsustainable irrigation methods. Hydroponics and other closed water cycle agriculture practices use up to 10 times less water than traditional agricultural methods and present a more sustainable alternative for agriculture's future.

For Minh Tran, founder of McGill spin-off startup Ikei, cycled water agriculture is the solution to this reliance on unsustainable food supplies. It allows produce to be grown in proximity to where it is being consumed, bypassing the need for transport across long distances. His company’s device promises to help make cycled water agriculture more efficient and sustainable by increasing yields and decreasing waste. Together with co-founder Professor Thomas Szkopek of the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and with the support of the McGill Innovation Fund, they are working to bring their invention to the market.

How do Hydroponics Work?

Hydroponics is a type of farming that uses water-based nutrient solutions to grow crops, eliminating the need for soil and large tracts of land. In the modern context of climate-change related food insecurity, hydroponic farming presents a cost-effective solution to sustainably feed future generations nutrient rich foods. The market for hydroponics agriculture is rapidly growing with an estimated global revenue of US$12.1 billion in 2022, that is set to reach $25.1 billion by 2027.

Looking more locally, Montreal-based company Lufa Farms grows produce hydroponically on rooftops across the city, earning an estimated revenue of $22 million in 2023. Hydroponic farms are not some pipe dream – they are already changing the way we eat.

Hydroponics farming has many advantages compared to traditional forms of agriculture. From an economic standpoint, hydroponic farming increases crop yield, while reducing maintenance costs and nutrient waste. From an environmental perspective, it conserves land and water, eliminates the need for pesticides and reduces emissions. But despite its impressive benefits, hydroponics is not without its issues.

“One of the main sources of inefficiency in cycled water agriculture is nutrient imbalance, as the plant grows, it consumes certain nutrients over others,” said Tran. “Over a few growth cycles this can become a serious enough issue where the crop yield drops to zero.”

“At this point, the farmer flushes out the system to start a new growth culture, wasting water and remaining nutrients in the system,” he added.

It is after speaking with a hydroponics farmer about the challenges faced by the emerging sector that Minh Tran started to think about the application of his technology in the agricultural context. His team’s technological advancements could be used in a device that would easily and inexpensively measure the nutrients of the growing solution.

A major obstacle to the growth of hydroponic farming is the high cost and difficult operation of nutrient-ion sensors that are used to measure the concentration of nutrients in the water solutions used to grow the produce. The current options for farmers seeking to measure the nutrients in their growing medium are limited and expensive. Lab analyses are accurate but come with a high cost and turnaround time. There are also liquid-filled selective ion electrode sensors but based on the experience of farmers that have used them the sensors have a high cost, short shelf-life and require a specific skillset to be operated.

“The current techniques for ion measurement are developed for laboratory use which implies either great expense in terms of the equipment that's required or the need for a trained technician to operate it. Presently there is no solution that is cheap enough, reliable enough for a non-electrochemistry expert to use it in a farm setting,” explained Szkopek.

“Our invention is aimed at trying to fill in this gap by the development of a solid-contact sensor that is very easy for farmers to use and operate with minimal technical intervention,” he added.

Technological Stars Aligning

Traditional ion sensors are made up of two electrodes, an ion selective electrode and a reference electrode, and work by measuring the electric potential between both. By improving on both respective electrodes, the new device produced by Ikei is significantly higher resolution, has a longer shelf-life, is cheaper to manufacture and easier to maintain.

The traditional ion selective electrode of the measuring device is replaced in Ikei’s model by a patented graphene electrode. Szkopek’s lab has been working on developing graphene-based sensors for quite some time.

“One of the electrodes is a graphene-based electrode, made up of a single layer of carbon atoms, that we are able to make exquisitely sensitive to different ions and different nutrients,” detailed Szkopek.

At the same time that Szkopek’s lab was perfecting the graphene electrode, his PhD student Minh Tran was working on improving the other part of the measuring system: the reference electrode. Traditional reference electrodes are filled with liquid and need to be replaced often due to their short shelf-life.

“After my discussions with many individuals about reference electrodes, I was on a mission to develop a reference electrode that would be compact and cheap to manufacture. It was through a lot of days and nights in the lab where I would attempt to repeat experiments and work that we developed the solid reservoir reference electrode. The electrode doesn’t have any liquid, so the shelf life is much longer than regular reference electrodes,” said Tran.

The technological advances in both the electrodes combined serendipitously and sent Tran on a quest to find its potential application. As he explained it, “I just saw the stars aligning and realized that if you combine these two inventions, you can really potentially do something.”

“Having both the reference electrode that is impervious to the environment and the graphene electrode that we designed to be sensitive to a specific target, we are able to start thinking about making sensor systems that are useful for applications such as cycled water agriculture,” added Szkopek.

The MIF: Cleantech and Beyond

Ikei’s project is being supported by the McGill Innovation Fund as it moves from the laboratory into the commercial space. “The MIF have very generously supported Ikei to assist with the experiments that are going to inform us about how these sensors are going to work in an actual agricultural setting and what are the problems that we need to solve before that happens,” remarked Szkopek.

“It is a very important step to make this leap from something that works in a laboratory to something that works in the real world, and this transition is an incredibly difficult one to make because there's so much that it is unknown,” he added.

Ikei received both the discover stage award worth $25,000 and the Cleantech supplemental award, worth an additional $40,000, sponsored by McGill alum Marc Boghossian. On top of the award money, Ikei received their own MIF research advisory board (RAB) to aid the transition from the lab to the market. With experts from the agricultural and food service sectors, as well as the investment community helping to provide insight on how to develop Ikei.

“If everything goes well with cycled water agriculture, we want to expand to other applications. One of the other applications that we can potentially explore is wastewater management which can be used in many different countries across the world in making sure that water is up to a decent quality before being thrown out into the environment,” concluded Tran.

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