Essex University opens vertical farm for plant research

May 9, 2024

The UK’s University of Essex has launched a unique £3m plant lab that will allow scientists to adapt plants for a hotter, drier planet.

The lab boasts a vertical farm, an indoor field that replicates real environments anywhere in the globe, and suites that imitate a warming world. Computer plant scanning technology will also be used to monitor plants as they grow – and pinpoint precise changes in photosynthesis.

The research will be underpinned by AI and robotics that will develop new ideas, technologies and strategies to predict how agriculture and the natural world are changing.

Biologist Professor Tracy Lawson is spearheading the project, which builds on her decades of pioneering work into plant productivity, improving photosynthetic process and boosting crop water use.

The university will be the first in the UK to have a commercial standard vertical farm and is the only lab in the nation to combine all the facilities. The Smart Technology Experimental Plant Suite (STEPS) facility will develop strategies to optimize plant performance whilst working towards net zero.

The STEPS lab was part funded by the Wolfson Foundation which pledged £1 million to support its development.

The project will include long-time industry collaborator Innovation Agritech Group (IAG). The British company installed the commercial standard vertical farm unit, deploying a full scale GrowFrame360 – which is unique to UK universities.

“Our innovative GrowFrame360 technology will empower scientists and students alike to tackle the complexities of a changing climate on future crop production, aiming for future food security,” said Kate Brunswick, business development director at IAG. “We eagerly anticipate the transformative impact this facility will have on agricultural resilience and productivity.”

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