Kalera founder talks the science of vertical farming, LEDs

Kalera founder talks the science of vertical farming, LEDs

The vertical farming pioneer fills us in on what’s new with its latest expansion projects – including why the group trusts Signify and Philips brand LEDs, and how vertical farming systems are able to grow more, sustainably.

November 19, 2020

Kalera is making some pretty big waves across the country.

In 2020 alone, the advanced indoor vertical farming operation opened a new indoor farm in Orlando, Florida, where the group is based and announced expansion into Houston, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia, and Denver, Colorado, all of which are set to open in 2021.

The planned Houston facility will enter the market as the largest indoor farm in the state of Texas, while the Atlanta grow will reportedly have the highest production volume of any vertical farm in the southeast.

We touched base with Dr. Cristian Toma, Kalera’s founder and chief science officer (CSO), to get some details on the new facility and what the team is up to lately.

Greenhouse Management (GM): We read briefly about your recent expansion to the Houston, Texas, market. What aspects of the project do you think are noteworthy?

Cristian Toma (CT), Kalera: With the Houston facility we will continue to expand our HyCubeOS operating system, a distributed data collection and automation system controlling our hydroponic facility operations, such as light system settings, plant nutrient recipes, and grow room climate. HyCubeOS is based on a highly scalable and resilient Cloud architecture integrating our own IoT sensors and automation components into a system capable of handling multiple geographically distributed facilities. The HyCubeOS creates a data-rich environment that we can leverage for continuous process improvement by using big data analytics and AI. Additionally, our HyCubeOS system is now capable of controlling Signify’s’ programmable spectrum LEDs.

GM: Being a completely controlled environment ag farm, you’re always having to provide 100% of the light spectrums the plants need to yield. What are some of the most important aspects of a lighting system when you’re evaluating different options? And why did you ultimately decide to go with Philips LEDs for the Houston project?

CT: We have been using Philips brand horticultural LEDs for several years, both in our R&D facility and also in our large-scale production facilities in Orlando, Florida. Although we have tested many other lighting systems, and we intend to continue to do so, so far we keep selecting Signify/Philips products due to several factors, including their market leading energy efficiency, cost to performance ratio, product range - including both static and programmable spectrum LEDs – and SIgnify’s  ability to supply large projects.

© Photo credit - Kalera
Vertically-farmed lettuce crops inside Kalera's Orlando, Florida, facility. 

GM: I see that Kalera’s slogan or marketing tagline is “The science of great greens.” What is the science behind the Philips LEDs that you use that makes them so ideal for indoor stacked leafy green production? Is it a certain spectrum of light, or perhaps it’s the ability to dim the LEDs on demand?

CT: In addition to energy efficiency, the ability to implement optimized light recipes is a major factor in our work. For example, a Kalera-sponsored study carried out at the University of Florida has shown that when exposed to enhanced blue light recipes prior to harvest, red-leaf lettuce significantly increases the production of antioxidants and especially of anthocyanins, compounds in plants that may offer health-promoting benefits by protecting cells from free radicals.

GM: Tell us about the efficiency benefits of indoor, vertical farming, versus a pure-play greenhouse grow. The vertical farming method of growing really seems to be catching on in terms of popularity, all over the world.

CT: Vertical farms like Kalera’s produce 300 to 400 times more output per square foot compared to a traditional farm, through a combination of vertical layering, and crop cycle acceleration. The energy balance is different in a greenhouse vs. a vertical farm, depending on the geographical location. Greenhouses typically spend more energy for climate control vs. a vertical farm that is deployed in a warehouse. When retrofitting warehouses for its vertical farms, Kalera uses passive energy saving methods as much as possible in order to reduce climate control energy costs. On the other hand, greenhouses benefit from the availability of sunlight, which of course requires greenhouse growing systems to be single layered, and therefore take up a large amount of land, limiting location options.