Climate change, population growth and urbanisation cause challenges to food production. In the future, it must be possible to produce increasing amounts of food with smaller resources. VTT has developed two innovations that respond to these challenges: one – winner of this year's research pithing competition at Slush – enhances growth conditions particularly in vertical farming, and the other provides better protection from heat than the present solutions.
Monitoring of gas molecules to improve crops
VTT's award winning innovation focuses on the optimisation of growth conditions in vertical farming done in several stacked layers. Vertical farming is particularly well suited to urban environments, and its importance is increasing as a constantly growing share of the global population is moving to cities.
"Plants need nutrition, water and light, but it is difficult to know whether they get the right amount of each. We have developed a method by which growth conditions can be examined by measuring the gas molecules plants produce into air. Based on this data, we can optimise growth conditions and increase crops even when using reduced amounts of resources," says Senior Scientist Guillaume Genoud from VTT.
This multidisciplinary solution combines the knowledge of plants held by biologists, new measuring technologies and advanced data analytics. The solution has been tested on the cultivation of salads in laboratory conditions and, next, the testing will be expanded to other cultivated plants and greenhouse conditions.
"The method opens up opportunities for automating food production and increasing vertical farming in urban environments, such as at homes and in schools and workplaces," Genoud points out.
Combatting crop failures with multifunctional fabrics
Strong sunlight, heat and UV radiation reduce the crops in the hot regions of the globe. To date, plastic-based light-protective fabrics have been used for protecting plants from heat. VTT has now developed a new cellulose-based material that is better than the current protective mesh fabrics.
"Our starting point was to develop a biodegradable alternative, since, if left on the ground, plastic covers render the land unsuitable for cultivation, unless removed in an appropriate manner. A cellulose-based material does not accumulate in the field but disintegrates in soil and can stand heat much better than plastic," says Senior Scientist Hannes Orelma from VTT.
The optical properties of the new material can be adjusted chemically, which is a major benefit. "The film can be used for adjusting the intensity and wavelength of sunlight, and to scatter light and heat. This provides plants with improved protection against damage caused by heat and aridness. In addition, the sensor elements that can be integrated into the film give us information about growth conditions.
iBEX programme solves global challenges
The innovations described above have been developed as part of VTT's iBEX 2019 programme. The programme is an example of a new way of making applied research more solution-oriented, and it currently includes 11 research projects. The projects tackle some of the great global challenges and seek radical solutions to them in collaboration with the industry and the surrounding society. The iBEX programme is a runway for innovations that will change the world.