High-Tech Hydroponic Farm Transforms Abandoned Bowling Alley

High-Tech Hydroponic Farm Transforms Abandoned Bowling Alley | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Gotham Greens

NEW YORK CITY — On top of an old bowling alley in industrial northern Brooklyn sits an expansive translucent greenhouse. Inside, a bounty of produce thrives under the supervision of a computer-controlled network of sensors, motors and plumbing.

The 15,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse facility, called Gotham Greens, is reputedly the first commercial-scale urban operation of its kind in the United States. Thousands of lettuce and basil seedlings were plopped into a soil-less farming system in May. Since then, three local entrepreneurs say their operation is on track to deliver 100 tons of produce by the one-year mark.

While that pales in comparison to about 1.5 million tons of soil-free produce trucked into the city each year, and is far less than the output of nearby soil rooftop farms, the $2 million startup can’t keep up with demand from the city’s top chefs and upscale grocery stores.

“On the first harvest day we had so much lettuce we almost didn’t know what to do with it all, but now we can’t grow it fast enough,” said greenhouse director Jennifer Nelkin.

Gotham Greens is already eyeing some of the the city’s more than 940 million square feet of rooftop space to expand their high-tech operation.

The hardest task, said co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri, is convincing landlords to entertain the idea of putting a watery business on their rooftops. After that it’s a matter of navigating zoning restrictions, building codes and figuring out how to engineer the plumbing.

“You can’t bury anything on a roof,” Puri said. “It requires some clever technology.”

Images: 1) Inside Gotham Greens at 810 Humboldt St. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Dave Mosher/Wired.com) 2) The outside of the greenhouse. (Copyright of Gotham Greens)

 

seedlings in basalt rock plugs

 

Plant Plugs

The greenhouse begins its work by germinating seeds of four lettuce types and one basil variety in plastic bins. Fibrous plugs, spun from a volcanic rock called basalt, draw water to the fledgling roots and provide a medium for them to grow in.

“Not just hydroponic growers use the plugs,” Nelkin said. “A lot of farmers try and get a head-start at their soil farms, usually about six weeks before they can plant, by germinating seedlings in them.”

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

irrigation system

 

Irrigating Gutters

Between 10 and 14 days after planting in the basalt plugs (above), the seeds sprout into seedlings and are ushered into hydroponic gutters (below). A series of pumps and drains constantly move nutrient-rich water through the gutters. Gotham Greens uses the nutrient film technique, which circulates a very shallow layer of water to supply roots with ample oxygen. Tight control over the nutrients and climate gives growers extreme control over their products.

“Many [hydroponic] tomatoes in the store, for example, taste like a swimming pool — and it’s too bad they’re giving hydroponics a bad name. It’s indicative of the grower, not the method,” Nelkin said. “You can really manipulate produce with hydroponics. You can choose to grow a tasteless tomato full of water, or grow the best, sweetest, juiciest tomato you’ve ever had.”

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

calcium iron micronutrient bucket

 

Produce Juice

Plants primarily need water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur to grow. Most of these  materials come from air and tap water, but some trace nutrients need to be supplemented.

Gotham Greens stores nutrient mixes in giant buckets (above). When low levels are detected by sensors or in human-collected samples, computer-controlled pumps move the fluid into a nearby lagoon. (For proprietary reasons, Wired.com was only allowed to photograph this part of the system.) From there the solution is delivered to the gutters, and runoff returns to the lagoon for recycling.

The irrigation system is less complex than those of other hydroponic greenhouses, but Nelkin said anything more would be cost-prohibitive. “For our scale, it doesn’t make practical sense to micromanage every nutrient,” she said. “We’re not that large.” Their water comes from the tap.

Image: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

weather station

 

Climate Control

Important to Gotham Greens’ farming efficiency is a computer controller that monitors environmental conditions, keeping the greenhouse climate as ideal as possible for each type of veggie.

A weather station (above) monitors outdoor conditions while a photometer (below) and other sensors help keep tabs inside.

“When it hits a certain climate, [the controller] can turn on the fans, draw the sun shades, open vents, turn on the lights, turn on the heaters and so on,” Nelkin said.

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

fly paper

 

Shoo, Fly

But what of the pests found in abundance near any unprotected plant? Gotham Greens doesn’t use pesticides. They fight fire with bug-eating fire.

Colored plastic cards covered with sticky goo attract the pests, which Nelkin and others check each day. When a bothersome bug is identified, Nelkin shops online for its predator, orders it and releases hordes of them in the greenhouse.

For aphids (above), a tray of ladybugs (below) usually does the trick.

“About 1,000 ladybugs costs probably $20,” Nelkin said. “It’s more expensive than pesticides, but it works.”

Controlling other pests requires the introduction of predatory wasps.

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

solar panels

 

Green Power

Intelligent, organic greenhouses require electricity for lamps, pumps, computers and more. Solar panels installed by Gotham Greens satisfy about half of the facility’s needs, roughly enough to power 12 New York City households.

“Over the summer, we generated a good amount of power,” Puri said. “We’re going to track that data so we’ll be able to say exactly how much they help per year.”

Image: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

 

Jennifer Nelkin and Viraj Puri

 

Co-founders

Jennifer Nelkin (above, left) and Viraj Puri dreamed up Gotham Greens in 2008 after collaborating on a greenhouse that floated on the Hudson River. They’re now spending 100 percent of their time to develop Gotham Greens along with co-founder Eric Haley.

Their local food business may cut back carbon emissions better than most farms by minimizing transportation and relying on solar energy, but Puri said their main focus is delivering good produce. “The green aspects are a great bonus, but we want to be known for the quality of our products,” he said.

After Gotham Greens’ trial year ends in 2012, the company hopes to expand its line of crops to include tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, strawberries and even eggplant.

Images: Dave Mosher/Wired.com

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