Seeing The Light – At The NLG Greenhouse

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A greenhouse whose very fabric can ‘increase crop yield, speed of growth, as well as improve taste, plant health, and vigour’?! With a proposition that strong its small wonder that AutoPot beamed over to the University of Warwick this month. For a visit to the world’s first Natural Light Growing Centre (NLG).

Above: The NLG at the University of Warwick

To do full justice to the NLG we must first dip into the acronym gym for an initial-heavy workout. The NLG has been created by Crop Health and Protection (CHAP), one of four UK Agri-Tech Centres funded by Innovate UK, and Rapid Installation Process for ETFE (RIPE), a horticulturally focussed architectural design practice. More than mere name checking, this credit roll matters in that it goes a long way towards explaining the plant-centric ideas behind the innovative facility.

Above: The scale of RIPE and CHAPS’ work is indicative of the extent
to which advanced growing techniques are now being pursued

The basic premise of the NLG is that plants benefit in material ways from natural light. In the view of the NLG’s creators this is because, in evolutionary terms, natural light is an intrinsic part of a plant’s existence. Over millions of years vegetal life has evolved on earth with access to the full spectrum including UV rays. Only recently have we started asking that plants grow in glasshouses where elements of light such as UV are reduced or lost.

Above: Taste test winners! ETFE greenhouse-grown cucumbers
trump supermarket rivals in a blind taste test comparison

Innovative, sustainable tech is used at the NLG in an effort to prove that natural light can play a part in controlled environment agriculture. In place of traditional glazing, a specially coated, non-drip ETFE (fluoropolymer) film is ‘inserted into the lightweight (greenhouse) frame design and tensioned using patented heat technology.’ This film, ‘used widely in Japan for nearly 40 years,’ does allow UV to pass unobstructed, and it’s credentials don’t stop there.

Above: ETFE film allows the full spectrum of light – including UV – to penetrate,
giving plants the quality of light they’ve evolved with over millions of years

Glass breaks and breaks often. When glass breaks crops are culled. If damage to the glasshouse is serious then the cost of the necessary cull will often dwarf the cost of glazing repairs. Bad enough in the well-insured commercial set-ups of developed countries. But if you want to roll out controlled environment growing globally, as seems increasingly imperative, then a far more durable solution than glass is required. ETFE film fits the bill. It is strong, highly weather resistant, doesn’t absorb radiation, and UV doesn’t cause it to degrade. ‘But it’s a plastic!’, you cry, ‘that’s no way forward!’.

Above: Not only does ETFE film allow UV penetration, it’s also far more
durable than glass and no threat to the crops within the greenhouse

To think that plastic has no part to play in future life on earth is perhaps a little naive. It just needs to be used carefully, and as in this case, for good reasons. If a substance is being used in a vital role (ie. Better crop production), if it’s going to have a decades-long lifespan, if it’s not going to be casually discarded, and if it can be melted down and reconstituted as itself, then there’s quite a strong argument that its use is justified. ETFE ticks these boxes. Mightily impressed by the NLG facility and keen to participate in such an exciting venture, we at AutoPot have thrown our hat into the ring.

Above: Credentials Galore – The benefits of an ETFE film greenhouse over Float or Tempered Glasshouses

In the coming months we’re looking forward to the installation of twenty-six power-free easy2grow modules at the NLG. These will be growing tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons as we seek to demonstrate how our high-yielding, gravity-fed tech can mesh with the remarkable properties of an ETFE greenhouse. Plants control their own irrigation in AutoPot Watering Systems – a natural way of growing – so we’re really pleased to join in with a project like the NLG that, similarly, puts plants in their element.

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