Vermont Technical College partnered with Earthwise Global Inc., a Northfield, Vt.-based AgriTech company, on a 6-week preliminary feasibility study that evaluated the use of a nanobubble technology to grow hydroponic crops more efficiently and abundantly. Vermont Tech’s study employed Earthwise’s advanced water aeration technology and resulted in a 25% net yield in both basil and lettuce weight with additional analysis of plant health and nutrient value forthcoming.
The study results show an opportunity to increase crop yield and decrease phosphates in the environment while also improving the nutritional value of a hydroponic crop. In doing so, the research addressed critical issues facing hydronic crop growers in Vermont and more broadly; namely, food availability, access, and nutritional value as well as climate and environmental impacts.
The study was led by Michelle Sama, PhD, associate professor and department co-chair of Science, Molly Willard, project manager for Agricultural Training and director of Vermont Tech’s Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems, and Ross Lieblappen, PhD, assistant professor and department co-chair of Science. It ran from mid 2021 through early 2022.
“If we can improve the growth efficiency and lessen the financial burden of producing nutritious foods, we can support our state and country in solving critical food access and availability challenges,” said Dr. Sama.
“As growers contend with climate change impacts, growing crops in a controlled environment is beneficial,” Willard added. “Earthwise technology helps growers maximize yields with lower nutrient inputs under smaller contained growing environments.”
There are potentially economic impacts as well. “We are very pleased with the collaboration with Vermont Tech and the excellent results from their study. We are also confident that we can deliver similar results in organic lettuce production, which will lead to a tremendous boon to the profitability of organic farmers,” said Peter Appleton, PhD, founder and CEO of Earthwise Global Inc. “These results, when applied to a commercial grow operation of a medium-sized, 10,000-sq ft. greenhouse, translate to over $50,000 increase in net income per harvest. “
The research is in response to Vermont’s Governor’s Commission on Agriculture recent call for changes in agricultural education and practice in order to innovate.
The goal of the feasibility study was to optimize the use of oxygen as a catalyst for efficient nutrient uptake and usage and to also reduce nutrient discharge.
Other research has shown that more than 50% of fertilizer applied to crops in open field agriculture and more than 25% in controlled environment agriculture is not taken up by the plant in the growth cycle. This results in a waste of nutrients, higher input costs, and the potential for discharge into the environment.
“Increasing nutrient uptake will produce healthier and higher-yielding crops, all while decreasing the environmental burden,” Dr. Sama explains.
It was deemed beneficial by the research team to scale up the growth experiment to a semi-full-size outdoor trial, allowing the plants to fully produce harvestable fruit. This was done to assess the representative impact of nanobubble water-to-plant growth. The study’s results indicate that while normal water used in agriculture has an oxygen concentration of 6-8 mg/L, 20 mg/L is a target concentration for optimizing green pepper plant growth.
No students were involved in this study, but there is future opportunity for students to engage in such research to experience the hands-on use of technology, engage in data analysis and measurement, and make data-informed decisions. A new hydroponic resource for Vermont Tech students is available at the Randolph campus as part of the existing greenhouse.
Based on these results, Earthwise Global, in collaboration with Vermont Tech, is seeking agricultural producers interested in applying this technology to greenhouse and field operations. Contact Earthwise at firstname.lastname@example.org.