One heck of a high tech hothouse

Glenn Scott has a dream of cultivating the Yukon's first homegrown banana. He says it with a smile, like he knows it’s a long shot.

Glenn Scott has a dream of cultivating the Yukon’s first homegrown banana.

He says it with a smile, like he knows it’s a long shot, but when you look around where he’s standing, the idea doesn’t seem completely outside the realm of possibility.

Scott is the creator of the North’s first aeroponics agridome, which sits in a field behind the Yukon Research Centre’s laboratory.

It’s an experimental project to try and efficiently grow cheaper produce year-round in the North.

Scott’s theory is that the best way to get the most bang out of your greenhouse is to make it a dome, get rid of all the soil, and flip everything on its side.

The bright green plastic dome takes up 314 square feet in the snow. Inside, the whole thing is lined with Mylar. It’s hot, 23 degrees.

The shiny round surface of the dome creates what Scott calls “a big upside-down light bucket.”

That bucket directs all the light from a high-pressure sodium 1,000-watt lightbulb towards one skinny A-frame structure in the middle of the room.

Plants are stuck into little pods, stacked vertically along the pyramid’s larger sides to reach eight feet in the air.

The roots grow towards the middle of the structure, exposed to air. There they are sprayed with mists of water fortified with ordinary plant food. That should give them all the nutrients they need to grow, no soil required.

Planting vertically instead of horizontally means you can fit more plants in a smaller space.

When he’s finished building it, Scott expects his A-frame structure will fit a little less than 600 plants.

The whole thing takes up 32 square feet.

“The more space you take up the more space you have to heat,” Scott said. “That’s one of the big problems with trying to grow things in a northern environment is that the heat is just too much.

“It’s not effective to be able to operate a conventional-style greenhouse like you would in the South.”

The project is still in the very early stages. The central structure isn’t completely finished yet, and a lot of the pods still sit empty. A second light needs to be installed.

So far Scott has been planting whatever he can get his hands on just to get a sense of how different things respond to the environment.

The beginnings of tomatoes, peppers, sweet peas, cucumbers and table squash are growing on one side. Herbs, asparagus, leafy greens and cabbage are on the other.

Five weeks ago the plants started out in a germination rack planted in rock wool with a little bit of plant food.

About a week and a half ago, seedlings were big enough to move to the larger structure.

Now the germination rack has plants including habanero peppers and chocolate mint.

Everything in the dome is designed to be as efficient as possible. The watering system is a closed loop, meaning once the mist is sprayed, it’s collected in a reservoir to be used again.

A high-tech computer system will test the water and make adjustments to the nutrients when necessary.

“You shouldn’t have to be walking around with manual meters all the time. You’ll always know exactly what’s in that water because the computer should take care of that for you,” Scott said.

There are 26 temperature sensors positioned around the dome, looking out for ways the dome could be made even more energy efficient.

The total cost of the agridome project is expected to be $90,000. So far about a third of that has been spent.

It’s being funded by the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and the Cold Climate Innovation division of Yukon College’s research centre.

That efficiency is critical, said Stephen Mooney, director of Cold Climate Innovation.

The project isn’t worth much if it doesn’t lower the cost of growing food, he said.

“People have proven you can grow tomatoes on Holman Island, but it costs thousands and thousands of dollars. That is not realistic. This project, I want it to be realistic.”

Scott said he wants food prices in the North to be “dramatically lower.” Mooney said on par with the south “would be great.”

“A win would be food security for the North. I think a lot of people are familiar with the crisis in a lot of these communities right now,” Scott said.

“What I would like to do is, I want to give people control. I want to give people control of their food supply by demonstrating a highly effective way of being able to produce your own food.”

Once all the bugs are worked out in Whitehorse, Scott would like to see domes set up in the more remote communities.

The shell of the dome can be packed into two six-foot by six-foot crates.

If everything works, it shouldn’t be to difficult to run. The goal is for it to take less than 30 hours a month to operate, using less than 5,000 litres of water and 1,800 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Before he was an inventor, Scott worked for the University of Alaska Fairbanks building automated weather and gas analysis stations.

That work sent him all over the North, including to Russia, northern Canada and Alaska’s North Slope. He would sometimes live and work in remote communities.

“Over the course of several years of doing I started to take notice of the environment around me and started noticing a lot of the problems people were having living in these places, some of the absurd prices that people have to pay for food in these places,” he said.

“So I decided I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to do something a little more meaningful than simply building weather stations for other people.”

About two or three years ago he left his job at the university and started tinkering with the idea of vertical aeroponics.

He’s heard of similar projects being tried as far away as Nairobi and Italy, but this is the first time something is being tested in the cold.

Mooney said it will be at least a full year before we’ll know whether the project has met all its goals.

Like any research project, things will be constantly tweaked.

“In the months and years to come this is going to change,” he said.

“It’s been great so far, but now we are getting into the growing. The proof in the pudding is going to be the survival of the plants and the operation throughout the winter.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at

ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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