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Developing a sustainable growing media through gelponics

CHAP has launched a new project to develop an autonomous, hydroponic system centered around a novel hydrogel growing media.

The GelPonics project is a collaboration between start-up AEH Innovative Hydrogel and CHAP, supported by the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC) of Manchester University, Grobotic Systems, and CHAP partner Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC).

The project, which launched on 1st September 2020, is funded by Innovate UK’s Transforming Food Production challenge: ‘Science and Technology into Practice’ and will run for a total of 26 months.

GelPonics technology can improve the sustainability of production and, by optimizing inputs and crop resilience, cut operational expenditure. As well as being recyclable, the hydrogel product can be reused locally as a soil amendment to help sequester carbon. It also has substantial export potential in dry form to countries with water scarcity.

The project will be delivered in three principal phases. Phase 1 will optimize the hydrogel formulation and shift-changer nutrient delivery system, encompassing a state-of-the-art graphene membrane, alongside comprehensive industry analysis.

Phase 2 will focus on prototyping trials in CHAP’s Vertical Farming Development Centre and STC’s LED Tomato Glasshouse to optimize plant growth within the GelPonics system. System development will combine sensors with automation to create a fully automated rig for the hydrogel substrate, integrated with renewable energy.

Phase 3 will deliver a full, semi-commercial trial of the GelPonics system for both leafy green and tomato production, as well as demonstrating the technology and its potential for low-carbon horticulture.

CHAP Innovation Network Lead Dr. Harry Langford said: “There is a significant market demand for more sustainable hydroponic substrates. This project is an exciting opportunity to optimize and scale up a novel hydrogel product and demonstrate this product directly to the end-user, within a state-of-the-art, automated production system”.

AEH Innovative Hydrogel Founder Dr. Beenish Siddique said: “The two unique selling points of the GelPonics system are the hydrogel itself, which has a significant water-holding capacity and is both recyclable and reusable, and the ‘shift-changer’ system, that uses graphene technology for precision nutrient delivery to the plant roots.”

AEH Innovation Hydrogel Senior System Engineer Dr. Richard Fields said, “We will create an automated farm, purpose-built for housing the GelPonics system. Through this, we can optimize growth conditions for foods: improving yield, minimizing energy consumption, and reducing CO2 emissions. The unique combination of automation and sensor-driven farming will allow us to intelligently manage plant growth and rapidly adjust to changes in supply and demand for different food types.”

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