Science and Technology into Practice

CHAP, the UK Agri-Tech Centre funded by Innovate UK, has launched the start of 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, robotics experts Labman Automation 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 at the beginning of September, is funded by Innovate UK’s Transforming Food Production challenge: ‘Science and Technology into Practice’ and will run for a total of 26 months.

Hydroponic systems generally use a substrate, such as rock wool, coir or peat, to support plant roots and facilitate water and nutrient uptake. As all these substrate options are unsustainable, they tend to be the largest contributor to the carbon footprint of vertical farming or glasshouse production. With global controlled environment production expanding significantly, alternatives need to be sought that can decarbonise agriculture while meeting grower specifications and, crucially, competing on price.

The project will be delivered in three principal phases. Phase 1 will optimise 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 optimise 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.

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