Dutch PlantLab Revolutionizes Farming: No Sunlight, No Windows, Less Water, Better Food

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PlantLab expert

PlantLab uses high tech sensors and advanced mathematical models to produce the perfect environment for its crops. One day, all our food could grow this way.

You've heard of paint by numbers? Get ready for feed-the-world by numbers. Dutch agricultural company PlantLab wants to change almost everything you know about growing plants. Instead of outdoors, they want farms to be in skyscrapers, warehouses, or underground using hydroponics or other forms of controlled environments. Instead of sunlight they use red and blue LEDs. Water? They need just 10% of the traditional requirements. At every stage of their high tech process, PlantLab monitors thousands of details (163,830 reports per second!) with advanced sensors to create the perfect environment for each individual type of crop. In short, they create a high tech 'plant paradise'. See it in action in the videos below, followed by plenty of pics of their tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc. PlantLab's revolutionary approach to agriculture may be able to leverage math and science to create a better food supply for the world's escalating population. Fresher, local, more efficient...and they supposedly taste better too!

Urban agriculture isn't new, and people have been talking about vertical farms (i.e. greenhouse skyscrapers) for decades. We've seen some cool examples of urban aquaculture (fish + plants) and a team from Singularity University was working on small scale urban farm boxes last year. What makes PlantLab different is the hardcore scientific and mathematical innovation they are bringing to the table. Screw bringing the farm into the city. These guys are reconsidering everything we know about planting crops. Why use white light? Plants don't want the green spectrum, and many of the wavelengths just heat the leaves and evaporate water. Instead PlantLab gives their plants light from red and blue LEDs, changing the spectrum for each different plant! The same goes for CO2, and dozens of other factors. The results are plants grown in weird purple rooms, stacked in columns, that get bigger faster and with less resources than traditional indoor horticulture. Take a look:

What does PlantLab's purple fetish buy you? When grown outdoors plant photosynthesis is only about 9% efficient. With the correct balance of colored LED light, PlantLab has increased that efficiency to 12 or 15%, aiming for 18%. Double the efficiency means increased yield (or more likely equal yield with less energy). By keeping the plants in a contained system, PlantLab can also recycle evaporated water, which helps them grow crops using just one tenth the water as with traditional greenhouses. Because PlantLab's harvest is indoors, they don't have pests (and could quickly isolate rooms that somehow got contaminated) and they don't need pesticides. Finally, PlantLab's production facilities can be built almost anywhere: from the Sahara to the Artic, it's all going to look the same indoors. So everyone's food can be grown as local as possible. That means fresher food with less costs of transportation.

PlantLab's Gertjan Meeuws recently discussed some of the other benefits and results of their work on Southern California public radio (KPCC). He claims they're able to increase crop yield by a factor of three so far! Meeuws' comments are interspersed with those of Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier, a major proponent and innovator of vertical farming:

PlantLab is just getting started. They've created unique 'Plant IDs' for various crops, essentially providing detailed recipes for how to get each plant to produce food to order. Maybe you want bigger and efficient, maybe you want the best taste - they claim to be able to fine tune results accordingly. They also created a master control program, PlantLab OS, to handle all the feedback from sensors, and control the following environmental factors: light color, light intensity, light color ratios, day length, infrared, light temperature, root temperature, plant temperature, irrigation, nutrition, air velocity, air composition, humidity and CO2. PlantLab worked with Philips to create a unique "far-red" LED to produce a wavelength of light uniquely stimulating to plant growth. Essentially, they've done much of the first wave of research needed, and they're now ready to start building full-scale production facilities on a limited basis.

plant facility

PlantLab's vision of the future of farms. Data driven crops in controlled environments with automated systems. My goodness, it's beautiful.

But we probably won't see PlantLab farms springing up around the world for at least a few more years. The biggest reason behind the delay are the LED lights. While cost and power efficiency for these bulbs are following Moore's Law (essentially doubling every two years or less) they are still cost-prohibitive for commercial agriculture. Meeuws and his colleagues are convinced however, that the price for LEDs will continue to fall exponentially until PlantLab productions are financially feasible. Startup costs (buying buildings, securing water rights, etc) will always be high, but on a case by case basis they can be overcome if energy prices become more manageable. Especially considering the benefits of the produce PlantLab can grow.

In the meantime, PlantLab is sticking to its vision of feeding the world through better math and science. Their R&D labs enable them to closely monitor how plants respond to changes in their conditions on a limited scale (less than 50 square meters) before ramping up to larger production. PlantLab is also ready to export those labs to major research centers around the world so that everyone can help find optimized environments for plants. Here's a brief look inside one of the R&D labs:

PlantLab was founded with four key principles in mind, which can be paraphrased as such: 1) if we don't create a lot more food, our growing global population is going to starve 2) we need to innovate 3)we should redesign agriculture to best suit a plant's growing needs, and 4) if we can balance all the factors in a plants environment, we can optimize food production. Frankly, the creation of those goals alone would have impressed me. That PlantLab has employed them to such great benefit is truly wonderful. Triple the production of traditional plants on just 10% of the water is amazing. Customized environments to maximize (or tailor) yield controlled by complex operating software? Also amazing. The reduction (or absence) of pesticides and the ability to place these agricultural facilities almost anywhere is amaz---Look, it's all just pretty freakin' awesome, okay? Every bit of it. If and when the energy cost hurdle can be overcome, I think PlantLab's approach to agriculture may be a definitive one for the early 21st Century. Every crop gets its own perfect paradise, and humanity gets local, abundant food for their needs. Math and science can feed the world. Get hungry.

As seen in the videos, PlantLab's crops are normal fruits and veggies. But in their growth champers, they have a distinctly alien appearance. I'll leave you with these eerily yummy shots of PlantLab's harvest:


[image and video credits: PlantLab]

[source: PlantLab]

Discussion — 20 Responses

  • Gorgand Grandor August 14, 2011 on 10:20 am

    This is revolutionary, right? No more endless farmer’s fields everywhere? Just some big buildings scattered about?

    I still bet there will be some who hate the unnaturalness of this, and say that outdoors grown plants taste more free or some gibberish.

    • Khannea Suntzu Gorgand Grandor August 14, 2011 on 1:01 pm

      No these plants will taste better than the alternative. What however will happen is this – imagine a hundred million agriculturally oriented americans move to NY and LA desperate for jobs, food air and government handouts.

      Because food is grown automated in big city abandoned office buildings.

      • DylanWeinberger Khannea Suntzu August 14, 2011 on 8:55 pm

        It doesn’t matter if they do taste better, people will still complain of the “artificial” nature of them and fool themselves into hating the tastes of these.

        • chopinzman DylanWeinberger August 15, 2011 on 3:11 pm

          People already complain about the unnaturalness of fast food, a booming industry. They complain about genetically modified food, and pesticides. And yet unnatural food is a booming industry. Sure some might not participate, but if it becomes the most affordable, people will buy it.

  • Khannea Suntzu August 14, 2011 on 12:59 pm

    Yah in the 1990s I did a roleplaying game, and had my players investigate a hacker (jamaican with dreads clearly) who circumvented control systems in such an “Agricology” and used it to surreptuously grow pot.

    In another scene I had a cop Aerodyune land on the roof of one with a disabled engine, and crash through twenty floors of plants and glass. It was hilarious, since there were vampires on the Aerodyne and they were caught in a very bright growth environment with bright illumination and they more or less exploded. Ahh those were the days, fifteen years on and I was still trying to chart and extrapolate on ‘Blade Runner’. With vampires.

  • tonyyarbrough August 14, 2011 on 3:15 pm

    I find this to be extremely exciting and innovative. The possibilities are only limited by the actual marketing. I would be interested in nutritional comparisons. All of the technology shown already exists: ASRS, Carousel, or other kinds of storage (today’s normal automated storage and material handling) auto watering, Inventory control, and environmental controls… with the applied custom mathematical OS to manage the growth process. Overcoming the LED arrays, I think we have a winner! There certainly is no shortage of warehouse space, and it doesn’t take too much of a deviation from existing material handling standards to make this a reality. … a “tech-farmer”? WOW!

  • Bill August 14, 2011 on 3:28 pm

    This is one of the coolest stories I’ve read here. Very exciting.

  • wildzbill August 14, 2011 on 9:48 pm

    It is my guess that if you factor in the cost of electricity, building, HVAC, and everything else, this method will never be cheaper.
    It would be a great system to use for space habitats…

    • chopinzman wildzbill August 15, 2011 on 3:08 pm

      Ah, but what if they were powered via green energy, or the Bloombox?

  • sophist August 14, 2011 on 11:14 pm

    Very well! This will pave the way for biotech revolution in food production. New infrastructure will serve as a springboard for it.

  • Joe Nickence August 15, 2011 on 8:16 am

    Considering that most of Texas has had their farms baked out of this year’s growth cycle, this is good news. The irony here is that this kind of system employs smaller, simpler automated systems, and puts the larger tractor/harvester bots out of work! It doesn’t say much for the farmer himself, though, unless he adapts from being out in the fresh air above ground to being an underground worker.

  • spoonhead99 August 15, 2011 on 1:46 pm

    All I need now is for someone to grow bacon from porcine stem cells then I’m all set for a lab grown BLT.

    Interestingly, this casts new light (sorry!) on the food vs biofuel discussions and the future of traditional farming.

  • hamdi badrawi August 15, 2011 on 2:22 pm

    I did built a hydroponic system with controled temp(20 c) and co2 /humidity 70 to 90% / air ventilation/ timed water spray and successfully grows barley seeds up to 15cm green barley within 7 days ,producing arrond  1 to 1.5 ton per day. After reading your new system I would like to ask the possibility to shift to grow veggies and fruit .My question is how to this using your new tech.

    • chopinzman hamdi badrawi August 17, 2011 on 1:52 pm

      That’s really cool, I’ve always fantasized about doing such a thing. Is this a business of yours?

  • chopinzman August 15, 2011 on 3:06 pm

    Wouldn’t it be great if the public invested in this, say certain towns and cities decided to install these facilities as a part of their local infrastructure? The price of food would be greatly reduced, it would require less labor, and it would reduce the need for imports.

  • gleetree August 16, 2011 on 4:02 am

    This also allows the production of crops to be very close to the point of sale. Supermarkets could grow their own produce and sell it on the day it was harvested with no transport costs.

  • Orbitald August 16, 2011 on 6:48 pm

    This is interesting and fascinating but it is not an immediate aid to our planet and its inhabitants. Once again smartish people have taken a little knowledge and applied it in a way that discounts so many unknowns that it boggles the mind. OK, so red and purple LED lights can grow certain plants really fast. Cool but should we eat them? The sun is the source of all life on this planet. Without it there would be nothing. It’s energy is interwoven in all of us in a billion trillion different ways so much that our knowledge of the web is microscopic. What happens to plants grown with only a few wavelengths of light? What about all those anthocyanins plants produce to protect them selves from the sun rays which help us eradicate free radicals. There are so many nuances in plant nutrition that we don’t know or understand and these folks are willing to play dice with that lack of knowledge. Silly really when there is a big glowing ball just over head that need zero infrastructure. Pests and herbivores are responsible for many secondary metabolites in plants. Without them who knows what will happen. There are too many unknowns to run to the bank with this one though unfortunately money is probably the primary motivation in a scheme like this. Interesting stuff but not what I would call a proven technology.

    • chopinzman Orbitald August 17, 2011 on 1:43 pm

      Beautiful argument. Obviously there is much to be tested and only time will tell.

      THe fact that you bring up our ignorance of plant behaviours is important. If anything this might provide some insight into their gene expression, it may be that they ditch antioxidants. However, it may be possible to manipulate their epigenetics so we do not lose these advantages. I don’t think there should be a 100% transition until we actually understand the system and can prove that it is indeed beneficial and not harmful.

      So it is indeed scientifically valuable at the very least.

      BUt there is nothing wrong with getting excited about it, because it presents a possibilty. The reason that the sun is excluded is simply because we can produce food more efficiently, and cheaply, using less resources. THerefore it will be more economically sensible.

      As for money being the main motivation, I disagree. The main value of this is that it presents a method of crop growth that can feed many more, all the while being less destructive.

  • jway August 23, 2011 on 1:47 pm


  • Kobyn Schlichter May 22, 2013 on 8:07 pm

    i just scanned over this, has this food been tested? on rats or mice?