Although it sounds like science fiction, it is possible to grow plants with their roots suspended in mid-air. In 1997, NASA began a series of experiments growing adzuki beans, a high-protein Asian food crop, using a technology known as aeroponics. Aeroponics can be best explained as growing plants in an air and mist environment with no soil, and very little water. The process is the same in zero gravity as it is here on earth; the plants are grown in specially-designed containers, the roots suspended above nozzles that mist the roots with a mixture of water and nutrient-rich fertilizer. Despite the lack of soil or growing medium, this mixture of nutrients and water is all the plants need to thrive.
GrowX, a startup based at Oakland’s Gateway Incubator, has developed the technology to bring aeroponics to cannabis. The space connection runs deep at GrowX; co-founder J.P. Martin was previously an engineer at SpaceX, the Elon Musk-owned company with ambitions to colonize Mars. Despite aeroponics having an out-of-this-world pedigree, the advantages as a growing system are more down to earth. J.P. explains: “Aeroponics is cheaper, cleaner, less labor intensive than any other growing technique. Ninety-eight percent reduction in water consumption over traditional soil outdoor farming, and a 50 percent reduction in water use when compared with hydroponic systems. A 200-300 percent increase in growth rate over outdoor soil farming, and about 50 percent increase in growth rates compared with hydroponic.”
GrowX has developed a growing pod that senses the environmental conditions inside and out of the container, and through computer controls maintains perfect growing conditions. “The buzzword is controlled environment agriculture,” J.P. explains. “A warehouse with artificial lighting, complete climate control, akin to what you’d have on a base station on Mars, but you’re on planet Earth. You can manipulate all the variables and deliver your crops the exact care they need.”
NASA studies show that a droplet range of between 25 and 75 microns is ideal for nutrient uptake by crops. Traditional systems rely on hydraulic atomization, using water pressure and small nozzles to create a very fine mist. However, particulate matter, organic buildup, or broken plant roots can easily clog the nozzle. With GrowX’s compressed air system it’s possible to use a much wider nozzle, eliminating the clogged nozzle issue, and an organically-derived nutrient system can be run without issue.
As our food production systems become more globalized and complicated, the risk of contamination increases. A 2015 study by Robert Scharff, an associate professor at Ohio State University, estimates the annual cost of medical treatment, lost productivity and illness-related mortality from food-related illness at $55.5 billion. Soil-based and hydroponic growing systems require a growing media around the roots. The soil or hydroponic media holds moisture and supplies nutrients to the plant, but that’s not all they hold. The planting media is a breeding ground for Botrytis, Root Aphids and other root-born pathogens. By eliminating the media, you eliminate yet another potential risk to your crop.
Fertile ground for innovation
Cannabis cultivation is evolving rapidly, and the startup scene is powering this frenetic change. For GrowX, this is an exciting time to be developing an agricultural product. “We chose cannabis as the beachhead for a much larger agricultural market because of the profit margins, and also the timing of legalization. On one hand, the margins are such that cannabis companies can afford new technology. But also contrary to that, there’s a price depression currently facing the industry. If we look at any other agricultural crop, it’s the growers who can squeeze every ounce of profit margin out of their business that are going to survive in the long term, and our technology is the answer to that.”