A start-up company based at The University of Manchester has begun trials of a graphene-enhanced growth material that could revolutionise food production in the UK and overseas, reducing transportation and contributing to sustainability in farming worldwide.
AEH Innovative Hydrogel Ltd secured £1m of Government funding through Innovate UK in July and begins work on the project in the University’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre on 1 September 2020. The two-year project will develop a unique, virtually maintenance-free ‘vertical farming’ system (‘GelPonic’).
GelPonic relies on a growth substrate for indoor fruit-and-veg that improves performance in numerous ways. The hydrogel growth medium conserves water and filters out pathogens to protect plants from disease, while a graphene sensor allows remote monitoring, reducing labour costs. Moreover, the production of the growth medium outputs significantly less CO2 compared to traditional solutions and can also be used in areas with drought conditions and infertile soil.
Help for farming through technology
AEH – led by Dr Beenish Siddique (pictured) – has been supported by the European Research Development Fund (ERDF) Bridging the Gap programme and was a 2019 prize-winner in the prestigious Eli Harari competition, run by the University. The extra funding announced by the Government on 17 July is part of a broader £24 million spend to assist UK farming through pioneering technology.
Beenish said: “One of the biggest hurdles in controlled environment agriculture is operational cost, which makes it a low-profit-margin business. The fact this system is almost maintenance-free could make a big difference to whether farms can be successful or not.”
“We believe there is an opportunity here to change the future of farming not just here in the UK but around the world,” she added. “Globally, around 70% of the fresh water available to humans is used for agriculture and 60% of that is wasted; agriculture also contributes around 20% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Our system helps control that waste and those emissions, shortens germination times and could enable an increase of 25% in crop yields.”
One of Beenish’s colleagues at the GEIC is Commercialisation Director Ray Gibbs, whose role is to help to bring innovative ideas to fruition through launching start-up and early-stage companies such as AEH. He believes the current pandemic, in tandem with net-zero targets, has sharpened the Government’s focus on investment in innovation.
Ray said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of the UK supply chains, none more so than food supply. Indoor farming allows us to grow food in the UK that would normally come from another part of the world. That contributes to self-sustainability, reduces food miles and means we’re not so reliant on international markets for our food.”
CHAP’s Innovation Network Lead Dr Harry Langford said: “There is a significant market demand for more sustainable hydroponic substrates. This project is an exciting opportunity to optimise and scale-up a novel hydrogel product and demonstrate this product directly to the end-user, within a highly innovative automated production system”.
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