Research Beat: UConn Professor Engineers A Novel Urban Agriculture Technology

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Hart’s Green House and Florist in Preston prepared its greenhouses for the Fall season this past Oct. The greenhouse is fitted with self-feeding lines to water their plants but explained heating these large spaces is costly during colder months. Photo by Jayden Colon/Daily Campus

Dr. Harrison Yang, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources & the Environment and director of the Connecticut State Climate Center and his students have developed a climate-controlled box that can be used to grow a variety of produce. This technology, named GREENBOX, includes LED lighting and hydroponics cultivation systems to aid plant growth, specifically in urban spaces where land is limited.  

In order to grow, plants need a controlled temperature, light, access to nutrients and water and some form of ventilation. In a conventional agricultural setting, crops receive sunlight and nutrients through the soil and water. The temperature of the surrounding environment is not as easily regulated, making greenhouses an enticing alternative to fully outdoor production facilities. Yang and his team, however, see a problem with the use of greenhouses.  

“Greenhouses are a facility for the indoor production of crops, however, they are… not suitable for urban spaces because they need land,” Yang explains.  

The GREENBOX technology uses, as Yang explained in an interview with The Daily Campus, “high insulating materials such as those found in coolers…which prevent energy from moving in and out” to provide an alternative to the conventional greenhouse or field by repurposing buildings and warehouse structures that might already exist in a city to house crops.  

Multiple GREENBOX units can be “aggregated” together to form something that resembles a large-scale commercial agricultural field. According to Yang, “each box can be monitored by computer and video systems,” adding a means of efficient plant monitoring. A crucial part of the equation, however, is ventilation, which he said the team has accounted for by suggesting the use of ventilation and circulation fans within the warehouse environment. He said the team also found that, as far as energy and water use, GREENBOX was more efficient than conventional greenhouses.  

Current practices make it necessary to “transport [fresh produce] from remote locations and… the transportation and storage costs are extremely high and it’s not so fresh,” Yang said. According to Yang, the use of GREENBOX in urban settings could enable the growing population that is concentrated in cities to have access to fresher produce at their doorstep without having to transport the produce from remote locations a great distance away–a practice that contributes to CO2 emissions. Yang believes that GREENBOX could show significant potential to help both the environment and lifestyles of people in larger cities. 

Yang said the next steps for him and his research group will include securing industrial partnerships to further develop GREENBOX and bring it to market.  

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