2011-07-02

Cyberhorticulture

One of my hobbies the purpose of which is primarily to disconnect from the world of problems, is the creation of random pieces of art. As the skills I care to indulge in primarily cover technology and raising potted plants, any successful combination of all three suits my love of perfection.

These points however random are not entirely unrelated to the topic of Sustainability. Environmental sustainability is one of the more prominent aspects of it and in my attempts to create something meaningful out of combining horticulture with technology appear to exclusively produce systems with more closed nutrient cycles or better efficiency than plants as such normally provide.

Although the results of my work are somewhat embarrassingly trivial in function and appearance, they still might be noteworthy simply because they have actually been built and furthermore, do not require any particularly special skills or equipment to produce -- although I do have a little scientific and expert backing on the subjects, these are hobbies and I am an amateur learning along the way.

My first attempt at applying technology to horticulture was met with the realization that biological organisms are far superior in many areas to whatever advantage a mechanical implement I can easily build would provide -- for example hydroponics is a good mix of technology with horticulture, however the tubing and pump systems are a very poor delivery system compared to a mychorrizal network, furthermore there is nothing in hydroponics that actually produces nutrients -- they have to be extracted from oil and added to the cycling solution. As technology is more a method than the mechanical implements people usually envision when thinking of the word, the attempt was not a complete waste of time -- if I had not considered applying some artificial method to feed a plant nutrients more efficiently I would never have considered using mycorrhiza. A little bit of research later, I produced the near-perfect solar-powered nutrient-regenerating hybrid: A potted plant with clover, a touch of Rhizobium bacterium culture and some mychorriza inoculate in the same pot. The clover grows nodules to host the bacteria, which fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into fertilizer, which is transported via the mychorriza to the target plant. The entire process is powered entirely by compounds produced by the target plant and the clover, therefore by photosynthesis. It is however not perfect because it only provides nitrogen, no phosphate or other minerals. Fortunately my target plant seems quite happy with the nitrogen provided and is blooming all over the place even though it is provided only with plain water.

In my second attempt I have tried to cover a different area as well as arrive at a result which appears more dramatic. Using up some quartz crystal from my previous short-lived fascination with the electrical properties of the crystals of this common mineral, I had successfully and purely by inspiration arrived at a solution to the age-old problem of day and night. It turns out (as also proven by the very successful attempts of my colleague Andrew Wallace to grow plants in a hydroponic setting during the 24-hour daylight days in UmeƄ) that most plants do not mind having no nights (this in fact is not the case with some desert plants which have a special carbon-fixing mechanism to avoid having to breathe during the day when humidity might be lost -- however this is irrelevant to us because decorative and edible plants are nearly all not of this group). I had hijacked a decorative garden solar light, replaced the battery with something better, positioned the solar cells so they receive maximum exposure and attached it's white LED to the base of the crystal, which is planted in the middle of the pot. During the day, the plant receives normal daylight and solar cells charge the battery, at night the circuit switches on the LED which feeds the plant over night. It turns out, white LEDs (based on the orange-blue technology, rather than the RGB ones) cover the spectrum for photosynthesis quite well -- in case you have wondered how this can be when common grow lights are usually green, it turns out that plants are worst at using the green part of the spectrum, however if you have a light source with a broad spectrum of emission and cannot produce light from both ends of the spectrum (like LEDs can), a broad green (which is right in the middle of the two desired frequencies) covers both photosynthetic pigments better than other colored broad frequency sources of light. Using a green LED would thus be a blunder (LEDs are very narrow-frequency, especially the RGB ones) and blue/red or white LED grow lights as such should be much much more efficient than other grow lights.

On my future attempt I am contemplating two options, one is to create a bigger version of my 24-hour plant. One of the main criticisms I have received on my last attempt was that the single LED is probably not sufficient to affect anything. I have found some tape-attached LEDs in a local shop as well as meaner solar cells on Conrad, using some sticks and ties I plan to attach the LED tape either in a few loops or in a spiral around a taller plant (probably corn). the additional LEDs will probably require more solar cells and batteries and I will thus have to create the circuit myself (to handle more current and/or voltage).

However what I really want is to create a plant which is geared towards indoor use. My love of horticulture is encountering problems with my roommates who cannot understand that growing plants inevitably involves humidity and dirt. I can get away with it outdoors, however it would probably be considered completely unacceptable indoors -- as I do wish to have plants near to where I sleep I am thus looking towards making that perfect indoor plant -- with no inputs and no outputs. I don't have to say why such a pod would be interesting to people working in sustainability! A plastic pot and another transparent plastic pot over it -- sealed with silicone. If the batch is prepared with all the necessary nutrients and preloaded with all the relevant bacteria to recycle wastes produced by the plant (compost bacteria) it should be theoretically possible to maintain the sealed environment forever (or at least until the plant dies of old age). As photosynthesis tends to produce water in vapor form which cannot be immediately reused by the plant, two Peltier elements at the base of the pot should be able to provide the cool surface on which water can condense -- as this would also cool the container, a control circuit would use the opposite element to maintain temperature and should it still go off balance for external factors, it may use both elements to get the temperature back to proper levels. Unfortunately, Peltier elements require a lot of power and thus would require up to 12 solar modules, which is about 100 € of solar cells and also makes the unit cumbersome and completely impractical, so I am contemplating just using a power socket instead -- it is for indoor use after all.

While interesting, both ideas would require me to have some knowledge in electronics which I currently lack -- so this might take a while. Or I may end up producing something completely different.

Until then, there will still be my software development which is preformed during the work week. As a teaser: I am preparing a web-based community platform for bragging about your productivity and promoting the use of Energy Accounting. However until it is out of the Alpha stage, I will not provide any links.

LP,
Jure