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12.2 Aeroponics

4 months ago

5 min read

12.2.1 Background

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) describes aeroponics as the process of growing plants suspended in air without soil or media providing clean, efficient, and rapid food production. NASA furthermore notes that crops can be planted and harvested year-round without interruption, and without contamination from soil, pesticides, and residue and that aeroponic systems also reduce water usage by 98%, fertilizer usage by 60% percent, and eliminate pesticide usage altogether. Plants grown in aeroponic systems have been shown to absorb more minerals and vitamins, making the plants healthier and potentially more nutritious (NASA Spinoff). Other advantages of aeroponics are seen to be that:

  • The growing environment can be kept clean and sterile.

  • This reduces the chances for plant diseases and the spread of infection.

  • Seedlings do not stretch or wilt during root formation.

  • Seedlings are easily removed for transplanting without transplant shock.

  • Seedling growth is accelerated, which leads to increased crop cycles and thus more produce per annum.

For Weathers and Zobel (1992), aeroponics is defined as the culture of whole plants and/or tissues with their roots or the whole tissue fed by an air/water fog (as opposed to immersion in/on water, soil, nutrient agar or other substrates). For them, plants that are grown only partially with their roots in air and part in nutrient solutions or are grown for part of the time in air and part of the time in nutrient solution are grown through a process of aero-hydroponics and not areoponics.

Aeroponic systems thus function by spraying or misting the root zone area with nutrient solution. The roots of the plants are thus suspended in air and are subjected to a continuous or intermittent/periodic spray/misting of nutrient-rich water droplets, in the form of droplets or very fine mists, with droplet sizes from 5 to 50 μm (microns). It is usual to find 'hobby/domestic' kit with spray droplet sizes of 30—80 μm. Ultrasonic or dry-fog atomizers produce a droplet size <5 μm, but these require compressed air and very fine nozzles, or it may be possible to use ultrasonic transducers to produce these mists.

In aeroponics, as with hydroponics, nutrient supply can be optimized and in a comparison between hydroponics and aeroponics, Hikosaka et al. (2014) note that no difference was found between growth and harvest quality in lettuce using dry-fog aeroponics. However, there was a significant increase in root respiration rates and photosynthesis rates of leaves. They also note that this system also uses less water and that it can be more efficient and easier to manage than conventional hydroponics (Hikosaka et al. 2014). In a review paper on modern plant cultivation technologies in agriculture under controlled environments, Lakhiar et al. (2018) note that aeroponics 'is considered the best plant growing method for food security and sustainable development'.

12.2.2 Origin of Aeroponics

Richard J. Stoner II is considered the father of aeroponics. The NASA review of aquaponics (Clawson et al. 2000) notes that the origin of aquaponics is largely in the study of root morphology, but originates in nature, e.g. with plants, for example, orchids growing in tropical areas where mists occur naturally. Clawson et al. (2000) note the development of aeroponics from B. T. Barker, who 'succeeded in growing apple trees with a spray', and F. W. Went, who in 1957 grew tomatoes and coffee plants in mists and termed the process 'aeroponics'. With regard to the study of root morphology, Carter in 1942 used aeroponics as a way of investigating pineapple roots, and Klotz in 1944 investigated the roots of avocado and citrus, and then numerous others including Hubick and Robertson; Barak, Soffer, and Burger; Yurgalevitch and Janes; and Dutoit, Weathers, and Briggs all undertook various experiments in aeroponics (refer to Clawson et al. 2000 for details).

12.2.3 Aeroponics Growing Issues

Clawson et al. (2000) report the tests by Tibbits et al. (1994) that continuous misting can 'contribute to fungal and bacterial growth in the vicinity of or on the plants', and furthermore some researchers have found that due to fine droplets and with continuous fogging systems, there can be difficulties 'in delivering nutrients to all the plants where there is a high density of plants'. In this respect it has been shown that misting at intervals delivers a healthier system and healthier roots compared to continuous fogging and hydroponic techniques. Using intervals also makes the plants more resistant to any interruptions in misting, conditioning the plants to thrive longer on lower moisture levels, with a likely reduction in pathogen levels. For effective misting, 'droplet size and velocity are also important aeroponic parameters. The root's mist collection efficiency depends on its filament size, drop size, and velocity' (Clawson et al. 2000).

12.2.4 Combining Aquaponics and Aeroponics

Whilst a number of entrepreneurs and keen hobbyists are promoting combining aquaponics with aeroponics, there are a number of issues that need to be solved if considering this combo-technology for future farming. One issue that needs to be resolved is a name for this system, and it is suggested here that we call this combosystem 'aquaeroponics'.

Whilst there are numerous videos and discussion threads on the web, on combining aeroponics and aquaponics, the field is void of scientific literature. The web-based discussions raise the issues of clogging of mist sprayers and the need for fine filtration of aquaponic solutions. Another issue with aquaeroponics is the potential for pathogens to grow in the airy wet environment and research will be required to ascertain this. One solution to solving the problem of misters is to use ultrasonic vibration to create the mists but this does not solve any problems there may be with the growth of pathogens.