A Lightning Primer on Vertical Farms

Exa Cognition Makes Really Good YouTube Videos

Like many of its viewers, I am suddenly a little obsessed with futurist YouTuber Exa Cognition's masterful vids on vertical farming. What follows is my tribute to this brilliant hour-or-so of research and edutainment (a quick and loose recap if you don't have time to watch the thing). It has me suddenly deeply optimistic about plant factories, an approach to agriculture that may be this century's Haber-Bosch process.

vertical farm in the style of basquiat
vertical farm in the style of basquiat

Notes on Plant Factories, In Brief

Exa Cognition focuses in on the types of vertical farms he calls "plant factories": clean room-style controlled indoor environments optimized to mass produce food.

Most plant factories use hydroponics (nutrient-rich water instead of soil) or aeroponics (nutrient air-mist) and have 100% artificial lighting using LEDs, similar to cannabis growers. Tight control of growing conditions optimizes yields.

Take, for instance, light recipes: specific schedules of frequencies and spectra of LED light for different plants at different stages of their growth cycles.

Very cool!

Currently the trade-off of plant factories relative to traditional farms is that factories save insane amounts of land and water, but take a currently-unsustainable amount of electricity to pull off. So the endeavor is very tightly coupled with progress in cheap, renewable energy.

There are three tiers to plant factory agriculture, progressing from easiest (and least helpful) to hardest (and most helpful). Leafy greens, phase one, have been proven viable. But man cannot live on leafy greens alone. Phase two includes vegetables, roots, and pulses, which require about 2.5x as much energy as leafy greens. In the last couple years people have been getting strawberries onto shelves. Phase three involves staple crops like rice and wheat, and would require 30x the energy. A successful phase three, though, would change the world.

Measuring the yield of these farms uses the metric "edible mass per photon," which is very cool in my opinion. Imagine asking your local gardener if they know how many EMPs they're putting out.

Plants would need to be optimized for growth in tight, warehouse spaces. Picture tall cornstalks busting open the overhanging LED lights and other factory machinery. For this reason, CRISPR has been deployed. Check out this gasp-worthy tomato bush:

He's optimistic that further progress in LEDs, controlled environment agriculture, and renewable energy will make plant factories viable for large swaths of staple crops within the coming decades. If that were to happen, the millions of acres of farmland in the world could be repopulated with trees and shrubbrush, capturing C02 and doing the ten thousand other tasks we need for a healthy biosphere. We'd also keep from running out of water, and many fewer people would starve.

Seriously, Watch the Videos!

I think I may bust into more of Exa Cognition's work later on. Gotta love a super-premium midsize YouTube channel that hasn't been discovered by the primetime yet. I'll just leave this Biorobotics video here for us both.