lunes, 22 de junio de 2015

Inside an MIT researcher’s grand plan to create the personal food computer

Plants grow at the MIT Media Lab. Caleb Harper is launching an open-source movement to share vertical farming insights. (Courtesy Caleb Harper)
Caleb Harper details his plans
at the National Geographic’s
Explorers Symposium.
(Rebecca Hale/National Geographic)
In a Cambridge, Mass. building, under the glow of LED lights, Caleb Harper is working to literally plant the seeds for a movement that could change the way we eat and live.

Harper, the founder of the CityFarm research group at the MIT Media Lab, wants to bring the open source spirit to the nascent field of vertical farming. With knowledge being shared freely, anyone could have access to the world’s best recipe for tomatoes, or whatever plant they want to grow.

Everyone in the world wants to know more about where our food is coming from and how they’re going to keep getting it,” Harper said. “There is a groundswell of consumers and young innovators that would like to make a big difference. All we need is the tools. My focus is on getting the tools out there.

This spring Harper made the first prototype for his personal food computer,” which is essentially a climate-controlled box. It’s small enough to sit on a coffee table, and includes an array of sensors to monitor conditions, such as carbon dioxide levels, humidity, light intensity and pH. There’s no soil. The plants get their nutrients through a mist which has crucial minerals added in.

There’s no soil. The roots absorb nutrients from a mist.
(Courtesy Caleb Harper)
By using digital technologies to identify and recreate the optimal conditions for a plant, his platform for making climate recipes has the potential to one day provide optimized foods around the world, no matter the season.

Harper plans to donate the personal food computers to select schools this September, when he formally launches his open agriculture movement.

Harper isn’t the only one interested in aeroponics, in which a plant’s roots dangle in open air, receiving nutrients through a mist. AeroFarms is spending $39 million to convert an old Newark steel factory into an aeroponics complex for vertical farming. NASA has used aeroponics to grow plants on the International Space Station. You can find plenty of examples on Kickstarter and YouTube of devices made for aeroponic farming.

Vertical farming is appealing because you can grow in urban areas, which cuts the carbon footprint of transporting crops. Foods also arrive fresher given the shorter trips to consumers’ tables. Because vertical farming is done indoors, there’s safety from droughts and climate change. Vertical farmers can also deliver crops with less water. One major question mark is the amount of energy currently needed to grow foods with aeroponics, vs. traditional methods.

What’s special about Harper is his commitment to open source, in which ideas are shared openly among all members of a community. I caught up with Harper while he visited Washington, D.C. for National Geographic’s Explorers Symposium.



ORIGINAL: Washington Post
June 17, 2015 

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