June 7, 2023

Build a “Plant Factory” and practice the ultimate form of “Wandering Earth” in advance

In 2015, He Lizhong, who had just graduated from Nanjing Agricultural University with a Ph.D. in Vegetable Science, received an “unexpected” task-to “plant a la carte” for the Chinese Antarctic Research Station.

As the most extreme environment on earth, Antarctica has no conditions for vegetables to survive. But scientific expedition team members need vegetables very much, not only as a nutritional supplement, but also because they face the white snow all year round, they are prone to “snow blindness” and even mental illness, and green vegetables can be used as “horticultural therapy”. , to bring spiritual “nutrition” to the team members.

However, the cost of transporting vegetables from other places to Antarctica is extremely high. The country closest to the scientific research station is Chile, and you have to take a military plane to go there.

Is it possible to build a vegetable greenhouse in Antarctica to supply fresh vegetables to scientific expedition members at any time?

He Lizhonghe’s team, the Chongming Base of the National Facilities Agricultural Engineering Technology Research Center, proposed that the plant factory——An intelligent control system is used to create an environment that can satisfy all plant growth elements, so that human beings can grow vegetables anywhere and at any time without being restricted by the natural environment.

But the significance of the plant factory is not only to be self-sufficient in the “Martian rescue” style for human beings under extreme conditions,It is also the best planting method to supply vegetables to the common people regardless of region and season, ensuring a stable table, rich and fresh meals. In addition, because the whole process is in a laboratory environment, the vegetables in the plant factory are free of pests and pesticides. People can also customize the trace elements of vegetables by controlling the nutrient solution, and grow higher-quality vegetables.


In a plant factory, usually about 35 days, a lettuce can grow and mature from seed.The variety of lettuce in the picture is “Elegant” | Source: Competition Official


Looking into the distance, plant factories may be the future of human agriculture.

In the past two years, from academia to industry, a research on plant factories is quietly becoming popular.

In mid-to-late February, four research teams from China’s top agricultural colleges, scientific research institutions, and enterprises were engaged in a fierce competition in a large plant factory base located in Chongming Island, Shanghai.

What they want to solve is the biggest problem facing the plant factory:How to balance the income model and grow the best and most vegetables at the lowest cost – this is the last hurdle in the journey from plant factories to people’s dining tables.




Top “Agricultural Greenhouse”



The plant factory was originally established from NASA’s (National Space Administration) demand for growing vegetables under extreme conditions in space. In 1991, the University of Wisconsin, which participated in the NASA program, began to try to do space agriculture with artificial light (fluorescent tubes).

A typical modern plant factory looks like this:

It is a container-like building that can be built almost anywhere. Push open the door and enter. On the right hand side is a three-layer or six-layer planting frame. Nearly a hundred planting slots are evenly distributed on each layer, and plants grow out of the slots.

Regardless of the alternation of seasons and day and night outside, the most suitable growth environment for plants will always be maintained here: the central air conditioner provides temperature, the sensor captures and adjusts the carbon dioxide concentration in the air at any time, and the nutrient solution mixed with water is supplied to the planting slot along the pipe , the LED light on the shelf simulates that the light is evenly scattered on each leaf.


Lettuce grown in a plant factory.Schematic diagram only, non-competitive seedlings | Source: Event official


Under this industrialized planting system, the plants grow with the highest efficiency, and the output also increases dramatically. The land can only grow 2 or 3 crops of vegetables a year, but the plant factory can grow 10 or 15 crops a year. The output of plant factories can reach more than 10 times that of land cultivation.

He Lizhong and his team built such a 36-square-meter plant factory for the Antarctic scientific research station. Using the seeds they brought, the team members can grow more than 20 kinds of vegetables such as lettuce, Shanghai greens, leeks, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelons, peppers, etc., and provide vegetables to the scientific expedition team members two to three times a week.

“This is a very important technology. What if one day we need a ‘Wandering Earth’?” He Lizhong said. At the Chongming Base, I met the leaders of the four teams including him.

He Lizhong led the Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences team. He has been researching facility agriculture during his undergraduate, master’s and doctoral periods. In Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences, he is also mainly responsible for researching plant factories.

From the aspects of yield, stability, quality, and proximity, plant factories are the best planting mode to meet the vegetable supply of ordinary people. It is the top form of “facility agriculture”.

The origin of my country’s facility agriculture can be traced back to the 1980s.

At that time, people were still facing the problem of “difficulty eating vegetables”, and vegetables could not be supplied stably all year round. In order to better get rid of the constraints of the natural environment, some farmers and growers began to build simple plastic greenhouses, which later evolved into solar greenhouses and glass greenhouses.

At that time, China Agricultural University specially set up the major of “Agricultural Building Environment and Energy Engineering” (abbreviated as Agricultural Construction Major). Its core is to improve farmers’ facility agriculture in a more intelligent way and solve the problem of “difficulty eating vegetables” for ordinary people.

Up to now, facility vegetables have accounted for more than 40% of my country’s national vegetable supply.

Over the past few decades, this major has attracted the attention of Zheng Jianfeng, a rural student.

Zheng Jianfeng was born in Zhoukou, Henan. His parents were both farmers. He has been working in the fields since he was a child, and has grown wheat, corn, soybeans, peanuts and other crops. His parents told him to study hard and “no longer farm”, but he still loves farming.

In the 2011 college entrance examination, he was deeply attracted by the concept of modern agriculture. His first choice was China Agricultural University, and his first major was agricultural construction.

In 2021, as a Ph.D., he entered the Key Laboratory of Agricultural Engineering of Agricultural University, mainly researching agricultural facilities, including smart greenhouses and plant factories.

At the Chongming Base, I met this 92-year-old boy. Wearing a pair of half-rim glasses, he is thin and has a calm voice. In the laboratory, he pulled up a competition team with all members born in the 90s. He is also the youngest team leader among the four teams. He said that the benefits of being young are “more focused, more focused, and more devoted.”


Zheng Jianfeng and his team | Source: Event official


In Zheng Jianfeng’s view, my country’s protected agriculture is still “big but not strong.” Its main body is still simple greenhouses and solar greenhouses, but there are still few truly intelligent greenhouses and plant factories that are the “top form” of facility agriculture. There is still a big gap between this and the advanced agricultural modernization countries such as the Netherlands and Japan. This is also the reason why he wants to devote himself firmly to the plant factory.




AI grow vegetables



On Chongming Island, adjacent to downtown Shanghai, there is the agricultural base of Shanghai Bright Food Group. Bright Food Group has always been the guaranteed supplier of staple and non-staple foods in this megacity of Shanghai.However, Shanghai, which has a population of more than 20 million, has been under considerable pressure to ensure supply. It is even more difficult during the epidemic. This also forced Bright Food Group to start research and layout of plant factories.


From the end of 2021, Bright Food Group has formed a research team for plant factories. Throughout 2022, the team is conducting in-depth research on plant factories.

In 2022, Bright Home Port, a subsidiary of Bright Food Group, will join hands with Pinduoduo to host the “2022 Bright Duoduo Vertical Agriculture Challenge” and the “3rd Duoduo Agricultural Research Technology Competition”. This is the background of the competition for these four teams this year. As a platform company with agriculture as its long-term strategy, Pinduoduo hopes to use new technologies to promote the digital development of agriculture and bring about revolutionary changes in agriculture.

At the competition site, four brand-new plant factories covering an area of ​​nearly ten square meters were lined up, and they belonged to each team. Like the visitors, this is the first time the four teams have seen their game equipment. The equipment and parameters for controlling light, temperature, air, water, and fertilizer are all connected to the cloud. After a few days of training and equipment debugging, these teams will leave Chongming to remotely control the growth of plants.


The final was held at the Vertical Agriculture Research Center of Bright Home Port in Chongming, Shanghai.The picture shows the four participating plant factories | Source: Competition official


Instead of people running these factories, it is artificial intelligence (AI) in the cloud:

First of all, the artificial intelligence system captures the photosynthetic speed and growth speed of plants through carbon dioxide sensors and image sensors. These two core indicators allow participating teams to know the true state of plants at the moment.

Secondly, artificial intelligence judges what plants lack based on these indicators, and changes the growth environment of plants by adjusting parameters such as temperature, light, water, fertilizer, and air, so that plants can grow better—this is to understand plant needs and give plants The process required is called “talking to plants”. The participating teams will monitor and control the process throughout the process.

“We have a very important proposition for participating in this competition. We want to verify how many decisions in agricultural production can be replaced by artificial intelligence, how far it can go and how much it can do in agricultural production.” Xu Xu, founder of Jixing Agriculture Dan said. He is also one of the four team leaders, who once led the team to win the championship of the last Agricultural Research Competition (for the story of Xu Dan’s team, please refer to the detailed report of Geek Park:In the suburbs of Beijing, do the most difficult “experiment”)。

And he has seen the answer. “I didn’t think AI It can replace us to do this (agricultural) work. Through these few competitions, I have seen that machines can do a lot, and the space for artificial intelligence to play is extremely huge. “He said.

In fact, after building a plant factory for the Antarctic scientific research station, He Lizhong himself has not been to the scientific research station. The cost of a business trip to Antarctica is too high, so he can only hand over the task of growing vegetables to the accompanying doctors and chefs. The latter had no experience, and was only trained for two days before leaving, and was told to send He Lizhong and his team WeChat for help if they encountered any problems. But even so, they managed to grow vegetables in Antarctica.


He Lizhong and his team | Source: Event official

Both Xu Dan and Zheng Jianfeng believe that in the field of agriculture, even if artificial intelligence can replace humans to do many tasks, it is still difficult to replace human experts. The latter can provide precise judgment and decision-making, which is currently difficult for machines to do.

In agriculture, however, not all scenarios require experts. Just like at the Antarctic scientific research station, people’s expectation is “just grow vegetables” – in daily life, the same is true for ordinary citizens’ demands for growing vegetables.

This may also be the most imaginative application scenario for plant factories.

Xu Dan imagined such a picture: In the future, in the plant factory, if people want to get a certain amount of vegetables after a certain number of days, all his operations only need to be aggregated into one button. When he presses the button, the machine will automatically sow seeds, calculate the growth cycle, water and fertilize, turn on the lights, etc., and when the agreed date comes, all this person has to do is to serve the dish.




High technology and low cost



The plant factory seems to be the most perfect form of agricultural planting. But it has a fatal flaw, that is, the energy consumption cost required to cultivate such a fully controllable environment is too high, which makes its revenue model difficult to balance and cannot be commercialized.

Bao Hua is a professor with a pure engineering background. He speaks directly and frowns when he listens carefully. His thinking is very logical and rational. As the director of the Green Energy and New Countryside Center of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Bao Hua estimates that energy consumption accounts for about 52% of the total cost of a plant factory (another way of saying it is floating in the range of 40% to 70%), of which light sources Air conditioning and air conditioning accounted for 60% and 35% of the cost, respectively.

This means that growing one kilogram of lettuce will consume nearly ten kilowatt-hours of electricity, and the cost will be more than ten yuan. This makes it even more difficult to make money in agricultural cultivation, which is already thinly profitable.

Energy control is Power’s forte. In the past, his research direction was heat transport and energy conversion at the micro-nano scale, which is widely used in the heat dissipation of electronic devices such as chips.

A few years ago, he also worked on a solar desalination project to supply fresh water to islands without electricity or energy consumption. Later, he realized that this fresh water device could be used to grow vegetables, so he transformed it into a self-operating vegetable growing device without energy consumption.

This time, he hopes to continue to use his experience to help plant factories solve energy consumption problems. For this reason, he pulled up a team combining engineering and agriculture within Shanghai Jiaotong University to participate in the agricultural research competition. His goal is to increase production by more than 40 percent and reduce energy consumption by more than 25 percent.



The picture shows the container plant factory and internal supporting facilities used in this competition | Source: Event Official


Empowering agricultural science with engineering and driving agricultural science with engineering are exactly the direction set by Puyuan Future Technology College of Shanghai Jiaotong University where he works. This is also the direct reason that prompted him to transfer from engineering to agriculture.


In August 2021, Puyuan Future Technology College of Shanghai Jiao Tong University was formally established. It is committed to becoming an international cutting-edge, interdisciplinary teaching and research platform. Dean Professor Ni Jun is a top expert in the field of mechanical manufacturing and automation. He was the chief manufacturing officer and co-president of engineering manufacturing and R&D system of CATL. The honorary dean of the college is Zeng Yuqun, Chairman and CEO of Ningde Times.

After many discussions by the management team, they determined the two future directions of Puyuan Future Technology Institute according to the essential needs of human beings: energy and health.

Focusing on the four perspectives of energy generation, energy storage, energy transmission, and energy use, the college has formed five major research centers. From the perspective of energy use, there is only one research center, and that is the Green Energy and New Rural Research Center. This means that the college regards agriculture as the most important application direction of energy.

When Dean Ni Jun offered an olive branch to Bao Hua and invited him to be the director of the Green Energy and New Rural Research Center, he pondered for several months. What prompted him to finally say yes was the realization that this was the right direction to go.

From the perspective of the country’s historical background, Bao Hua realized that agriculture had made huge sacrifices for my country’s industrial modernization in the past. It supported my country’s rapid transformation from a backward agricultural country to an industrial country, but it did not get matching returns.When he was a child, Bao Hua’s grandma’s home was in the countryside. He saw his relatives working hard in the fields, but they could only earn a few thousand yuan a year, which is not as good as going out to work for a month’s income. He believes that as my country’s industrialization has reached a certain level, industry will feed back agriculture, and cities will feed back rural areas. He wanted to be part of the process.

And the direction of energy he researches can really support agriculture.In Bao Hua’s view, agriculture and energy are closely related, and all aspects of agricultural production must use energy. If we look at historical cycles, food prices and energy prices are also correlated. Bao Hua even believes that the biggest problem in China’s agriculture is energy. If the energy consumption of electricity cannot be reduced to a certain extent, it will affect the development of agriculture.


Bao Hua and his team | Source: Event official

This is also the question Zhu Weimin, the judge of the competition and an expert in agronomy, is thinking about. The Horticultural Institute of Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences where Zhu Weimin works is one of the oldest plant research institutions in China, with a history of 60 years. As the third-generation director of the Horticultural Institute, Zhu Weimin believes that the first thing that needs to be solved in smart agriculture is the problem of environmental control, and behind this is the calculation and adjustment of energy.

“This is not something that can be solved with agronomy alone,” Zhu Weimin said.

In the Green Energy and New Countryside Research Center that Bao Hua is in charge of, there are two main research directions, one is low-carbon farm houses, and the other is plant factories. Bao Hua said that the reason why the plant factory is the main direction of future agriculture is because it is a “tractive” technology. This means that it will produce technological spillover effects, and even spillover to traditional planting modes such as greenhouses and fields, thereby driving the modernization of the entire agriculture.

His dream is to build a plant factory with all-green electricity (zero carbon emissions) supply in the next 5 to 10 years, reduce energy consumption costs, and allow plant factory practitioners to truly see the possibility of profitability.

Compared with the previous two competitions, Zheng Jianfeng believes that the biggest feature of this agricultural competition is that its focus is no longer on artificial intelligence technology itself, but on how technology can be close to actual agricultural production, increase production, and realize commercialization.

Behind this is that the participants’ understanding of agricultural production is maturing.Zheng Jianfeng remembers that at that time his team won the first place in the AI ​​group of the first competition, but due to the high cost of the technology, the promotion of this technology encountered certain resistance. However, the second place at that time could bring more benefits to farmers. “So our core focus should be agriculture, not AI,” he said.

“Our review score depends on the ratio between the final output, quality and energy consumption. To put it bluntly, it depends on whether we can strike a balance between production capacity and cost.” Wang Jinhua, Director of the Agricultural Business Department of Guangming Home Port, said. He is also the judge of this competition.

“Because the ultimate goal is to make the market accept you,” Wang Jinhua said. Only by reducing production costs can the consumer base of plant factories be expanded, which in turn will drive the development of the industry.




The Young Man’s Moon and Sixpence



One change is that there are more and more young faces on the game scene. Since 2020, Pinduoduo has held the Agricultural Research Competition for three consecutive years.

According to the observation of Geek Park, more than 80% of all the participating players in this session are post-90s. Xu Dan described that the players who competed with him last year were born in 1995, but this year they have become young people born in 1997 or 1998. Through communicating with these young people, Geek Park found that technology is the real key word behind the competition——Technology has changed young people’s views on agriculture and reshaped their beliefs in agriculture.

For a long time, when it comes to agriculture, people always think of “face to the loess and back to the sky”, which is very hard work. This is also an important reason for the difficulty in enrolling students in agricultural colleges.

Zheng Jianfeng entered China Agricultural University in 2011 to study agronomy. He found that students in this major were anxious to transfer away. When Xiong Yuanke from Bao Hua’s team entered Shanghai Jiaotong University, the Sino-French School he was in provided him with three options: information, machinery, and energy, but the teacher who preached never mentioned agriculture.

“What should we do? We can only force us to develop agricultural technology, reduce people’s daily stay in the fields, and slowly rebuild people’s understanding of agriculture – it is not as backward as imagined.” Wang Jinhua said.

Xu Dan feels that it is through such technological competitions that young people who study agriculture begin to realize, “Agriculture is not so low, and agriculture can also be very high-tech, which is cool and fun. This makes young new farmers appreciate agriculture. There’s more interest.”

The prospects and possibilities contained in agricultural modernization have also become the driving force for this group of young people to do agriculture.

Like Zheng Jianfeng, his team member Yang Ruimei was also born in the countryside and has done farm work since he was a child. In her hometown of Yunnan, farmers are still plowing fields with oxen and fertilizing by hand. After studying agriculture, she was amazed at the efficiency of agricultural automation technologies and hoped that they could be used to transform agriculture.

Lin Tong is a member of Xu Dan’s team, a graduate student majoring in computer vision. When she was a child, she watched her grandfather plant rice. It was very hard to sow seeds, and she had to be careful of leeches and other insects in the water. She feels that it will be very meaningful if she can apply the scientific and technological knowledge she has learned to the agricultural field to reduce the labor of farmers.


Xu Dan and his participating team | Source: Competition official


All participating teams mentioned the importance of interdisciplinarity. As an applied discipline, agriculture not only needs talents in this major, but also interdisciplinary talents such as computer science, engineering, and business. “Only in this way can agriculture be truly modernized,” said Zhu Weimin, director of the Horticulture Institute of the Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

But all along, Zhu Weimin has seen that “disciplines are very divided, and the barriers between each other are relatively thick.”

Through this competition, he was very pleased to see, “Young people engaged in agriculture, informatization, energy, and equipment all gathered together to find ways to grow more and more delicious vegetables. “He believes that when he retires, the integration of agricultural disciplines will find the answer.

This is not an easy path. There are too few talents who are willing to devote themselves to agriculture, and it is difficult for students majoring in agriculture to stay, let alone interdisciplinary talents.

In the same class as Zheng Jianfeng, there are 27 students in the class, only 3 of them are still engaged in agriculture. Sun Sijie, who has just graduated from Shanghai Jiaotong University’s agricultural graduate school, said that less than 5% of the students in each class are willing to work in agriculture.

The core issue is still income.

It is also science and engineering, Bao Hua saw, “Students of CS (Computer Science) at Jiaotong University look at the sky when they walk. But if they study agriculture, they may not have a good mentality when they come in.” The former went to a big factory, and the annual salary can give to more than 700,000, while the latter’s annual salary is far below.

Zheng Jianfeng has also experienced the cruelty of reality. After graduating in 2015, he tried to find a job related to agriculture, but even in a city like Beijing, the salary was only three or four thousand. “Unless your family is not short of money, or you just want to pursue your ideals, but there are too few such people.” Bao Hua said.

As for how to solve this problem, Power said he also has no answer. In the face of structural difficulties and the fact that the commercialization of the entire industry has not been fully implemented, it can only depend on the choices of young people themselves.

Lin Tong made his own choice. She said that although making money is important, she would rather be able to do things she is interested in. She likes to be close to plants. Just like humans, plants are active in the morning and rest in the evening, with a regular schedule, which makes her feel natural and comfortable. She finds it very interesting to study plants. Recently, she read a paper about how researchers listened to music to grapes for a long time and interfered with sound waves, which would affect the ripening process of grapes. She realized that although plants are static compared to animals, plants also have strong vitality.

Compared with his classmates in the same class, Zheng Jianfeng feels that his greatest luck is to be able to do what he loves. The moment he enjoys the most is seeing the plants he grows without getting sick, and they are growing upwards. “The leaves of strawberries are very green. In this kind of closed space (greenhouse), there are full of red fruits. You go in Afterwards, the scent of strawberries hits the nose, and you feel very comfortable at that moment.” He said with a smile.

A young contestant who studies artificial intelligence said, “The Internet industry will die, but agriculture will always exist.” The future he sees is that the Internet industry is already a red ocean, but digital agriculture is still a blue ocean. This is the future they are worth investing in.

And they are the future of the industry.

Ewen Eagle

I am the founder of Urbantechstory, a Technology based blog. where you find all kinds of trending technology, gaming news, and much more.

View all posts by Ewen Eagle →

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