Do you know your hydroponics from your aquaponics? And what features do aeroponics have to differentiate from both of these systems? Light Science Technologies offers an overview and addresses their benefits to indoor farming covering greenhouses, vertical farming, polytunnels, and medicinal plants.
What is hydroponics?
Let’s start with perhaps the most commonly known and oldest of all three methods of indoor growing. Derived from the Greek words “hydro” meaning water and “ponics” meaning work, it simply translates to “waterworking”. In essence, this is when plants' roots are ‘submerged’ in a continuous flow of nutrient-based water.
The system is designed for the long-term cultivation of a multitude of crops, although leafy greens are best suited to hydroponics and the same applies to herbs. In fact, fruit and vegetables such as lettuces, strawberries, spinach and cherry tomatoes can thrive pretty well, even in an extremely basic hydroponic system. An example of one of the most basic types of hydroponics systems is a passive irrigation setup.
© Wirestock | Dreamstime.com
How does hydroponics work?
A hydroponics system has two main parts: the grow bed and the reservoir. Seeds are ‘planted’ into the growth media (soil replacement) in cups which are seated in the grow bed and placed in a container filled with water and plant nutrients. The reservoir pump allows the nutrient-rich water to be delivered to the grow bed, so that the seeds then start to germinate in a controlled environment, and the root systems soak up the nutrient solution.
What are the benefits of using hydroponics?
The upside is that a hydroponics system can be readily managed and easily regulated, as a large-scale commercial system. Other benefits are that it offers growers an opportunity to grow fresh produce in an indoor environment all year round, regardless of season and without much effort; the method also uses 90% less water than traditional soil-based systems.
What is aquaponics?
Aquaponics uses a combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics.
How does aquaponics work?
Nutrients from the fish waste as well as that of living bacteria provide an excellent nutritional food source for plants. Not only does the addition of fish create a natural ecosystem in which fish, plants, and bacteria thrive off one another, but they also work together to establish a balanced ecosystem where both fish and plants will live, further adding weight to indoor farming’s sustainable appeal.
What are the benefits of using aquaponics?
Owing to the natural process used in aquaponics, it is scientifically proven to achieve better plant growth, lower disease rates, and less system maintenance.
© Josefkubes | Dreamstime.com
As there is no watering of plants required, it is more energy and cost-efficient for growers. Other benefits to CEA farmers are that plants in an aquaponics system tend to grow exceptionally well; in fact, it grows six times more per square meter than traditional farming. This is due to several reasons: water is never in short supply, despite overall lower usage rates; fish are constantly and consistently producing plant nutrients and plant roots enjoy a constant and consistent supply of nutrients. Having a continuous supply of water means that oxygen is being constantly delivered directly to the roots, to provide growers with an excellent source of reliable food and packed with flavor. What’s more, it enables optimum crop yields within a shorter period of time when compared with traditional farming methods.
Another advantage is that aquaponics produces two goods: fish and fruit and/or vegetables, potentially providing a sustainable business model, one which could offer a healthy ROI.
What is aeroponics?
Aeroponics is a variation of hydroponics, but rather than using a grow bed filled with media, plants are suspended, with roots being intermittently sprayed with a nutrient solution by an automated sprinkler system connected to the main nutrient reservoir, with efficiency and precision.
In the late 1990s, NASA began looking at aeroponics as a possible means of actually growing food in space, before later performing their own experiments for biocontrol. With NASA stating that aeroponics may become an essential part of future space missions. The moon base NASA is planning to complete construction in 2024 will likely use aeroponics to grow their own food.
Regarded as the most technologically advanced hydroponic method of its kind, even a decade ago, aeroponics was considered as offering a promising solution to the growing food security crisis.
How does aeroponics work?
By using this media-less method of growing, the roots come into contact with pure air. The extra oxygen at the root zone makes the aeroponic method much more efficient by enabling the plant to form its oils and sugars more efficiently – the ‘building blocks’ for the plants. The plants, therefore, carry a richer flavor profile, thus faster growth, and great quality, tasty produce, as well as providing yields three times higher and crops that are two to three times their normal size.
Photo 179333050 © Serhii Neznamov | Dreamstime.com
What are the benefits of aeroponics?
One of the most important advantages of the aeroponics growing system is the fact that it uses up to 95% less water than outdoor farming and significantly less energy.
This form of irrigation technology also promotes sustainability, as the plant material saves water use post-harvest as minimal or no washing is needed, therefore significantly reducing the carbon footprint to align itself with the Government’s Decarbonisation Strategy (2021), in order to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. This is also supported by not being reliant on fertilizers, so does not need any harmful chemicals or pesticides inside its system, making it beneficial for the environment.
Aeroponic systems also enable greater precision of nutrient application, as the amount of water being sprayed or mist being administered can be adjusted per meter of growing area, to reflect each farmer’s individual growing needs. This results in optimized plant health through every stage of the lifecycle.
What is the best growing technology for hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics?
Alongside the use of the latest LED grow light technology, growers can ensure maximum crop yields in a more sustainable and energy-efficient way which can also reduce CAPEX and OPEX costs.
One aspect of hydroponics that has proved challenging is the requirement to check the electrical conductivity of the water on a daily basis to ensure the pH levels in the water are correct. Fluctuations in water pH levels can potentially damage plants and in some circumstances even kill them. Fortunately, there is now a solution that effectively manages pH levels.
Due to technological developments in CEA farming methods over the past few years, advanced sensor technology now offers farmers a customizable solution to monitor key growth factors, including water pH levels, in real-time, along with airspeed, carbon dioxide levels, humidity, light, oxygen, plant disease, soil, and temperature. The data gathered helps growers observe in detail the environment in which their crops grow and make adjustments as required. By giving control back to farmers, they can achieve optimized yield.