The way that we produce our food will change over the next few decades. Recently I had an inspiring visit to Alex Fisher and his company Saturn Bioponics, based in Birmingham, who design and build vertical hydroponic systems. The technology of hydroponics has had significant coverage as potential future technology in agriculture. Alex was effusive about the technology and its future for growers across the UK.
The company was started by Alex in 2010, with the Saturn Grower design going from kitchen table to commercial trials in 5 years. Alex discusses the beginning of the company below:
From this beginning the innovative vertical hydroponic concept patented by Saturn has won numerous funding awards from government. The first was an ‘Innovation for Growth in Agriculture, Food and Drink Feasibility’ award from Innovate UK and the Department of Food, Environment, and Rural Affairs, which was presented in the Houses of Parliament that enabled Saturn to build a proof of concept design in disused glasshouses at the University of Birmingham. A further grant under Greenius has allowed the expansion of the prove-of-concept and refinement of equipment to get the concept to commercial viability.
The hydroponic columns are constructed from plastic pots and clear green plastic tops that slot together and are stacked 8 high. The pots can contain a range of substrates, rock wool being most effective, that absorb water and nutrients for the selected plants to absorb. Seeds are propagated in plugs, rock wool being preferential, and placed in the pots. The system drip feeds water and nutrients to plants through the columns that is then recycled into the tank for more nutrients to be added – something known as a closed system.
Alex said that “this system is the first to be commercially viable. The most suitable crops to grow in the system are leafy salads, oriental brassicas, strawberries, herbs, and cut flowers.”
There are numerous benefits of growing fruit and vegetables using this new technology:
- yield increased by up to 3.5 times
- reduced costs of production and environmental impact
- optimal water and nutrient use efficiency
- root zone disease eliminated
Agri-tech Catalyst and beyond
In 2014, Saturn received an early stage grant from the Agri-tech Catalyst. The project is developing a system for monitoring major nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and calcium) in a hydroponic system. Nutrient levels, electrical conductivity, and light levels are logged on a computer and mapped. From this map a grower can optimise inputs and minimise energy requirements for producing high quality plants. In the future this technology could be added to the Saturn grower system to create a fully optimised hydroponic production.
Through Winter 2015 to Winter 2016, Saturn Bioponics are set to install Saturn Grower systems into a select number of leading growers of pak choi, herbs, flowers and strawberries. These early adopters will benefit from significant support from Saturn and, of course, a leading edge in the market place. Hopefully the system makes a big splash with the growers and in the future your next punnet of strawberries could be from a Saturn Grower system.