Surrounded by rows of healthy saplings grown using the latest LED technology, Scottish forestry researcher Kenny Hay has little doubt that science can boost Britain’s net zero efforts.
The trays of young trees stacked nine meters high at the James Hutton Institute near Dundee in eastern Scotland are budding proof to Hay and others that LED light can be trusted to accelerate their growth.
According to Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), a government agency that manages the country’s forests, specimens housed there in the vertical farm grew six times faster than when using traditional outdoor planting methods.
The growth trials – in collaboration with indoor horticulture specialists Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) – could spark a transformation in the forestry sector and help the UK reach its net-zero targets faster.
“The initial results were astounding,” Hay, a manager at FLS, told AFP during a tour of the vertical farm, as a technician operated a mechanical elevator that provided access to the stacks of shelves filled with seedling trays.
“We can grow a huge amount of trees in a very, very small area, which of course will help reduce the climate.
“We are now going to look very closely at how we might integrate this into our normal processes.”
The vertical farm project, which occupies just 300 square feet (360 square meters), has “huge potential” for tree production, according to Hay.
The trials showed that some saplings grew 40-50 cm (16-20 in) tall in 90 days. A comparable growth rate would last up to 18 months in an outdoor field.
The air in the unit is warm and humid, adjusted to the ideal temperature and humidity for the plants.
Researchers can adjust light, humidity, water, temperature and soil so that each plant has its own specific “recipe,” Dave Scott, the founder of IGS, told AFP.
Water and nutrients are computer controlled and fed to the plants through a network of plastic pipes.
Vertical farms operate with much higher humidity and lose much less water through transpiration compared to trees grown in polytunnels and greenhouses.
But Scott said advances in LED lighting technology were seen as the biggest factor behind the impressive results.
Each tree species is assigned its own unique set of LED lights, mathematically adapted to the color spectrum.
“In recent years, LED technology has reached a tipping point, with efficiency doubling every year,” he said.
‘Stretch Them Out’
The trial also led to complications to overcome.
Some saplings grew too fast, leaving their roots too weak to withstand the wind once planted at FLS’ nursery in Elgin in the more remote Scottish Highlands.
FLS and IGS are now conducting a new test to slow growth to allow the saplings to develop stronger roots.
The ability to adapt the environment for each tree has helped researchers meet such challenges, Scott said.
“You can stretch them, make them smaller, you can emphasize them intentionally to make them fit for the outside world. There are a lot of things you can do,” he added.
Each trial, he added, produced better results than the last.
FLS aims to plant approximately 24 million new trees per year as demand for saplings increases amid efforts to tackle climate change.
But the need to plant trees quickly has also increased the demand for high-quality seed, one of the many challenges facing the industry.
Certain types of trees retain stored water, restrict root growth to survive three months without water
© 2022 AFP
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