Tim Youngblood   |   November 07, 2017

Aeroponics 101

Learn the basics of aeroponics and see how they're being scaled for large-scale cannabis growing facilities.
Tim is a technology journalist and was an editor for All About Circuits. His specialty as a historian at Boise State University was cannabis legislation. His favorite things to write and nerd out about are experimental technology, single…

Learn the basics of aeroponics and see how they're being scaled for large-scale cannabis growing facilities.

Aeroponics is a method of growing plants in an environment with no soil. The first gardens with no soil environments were developed in the 1920s. It became popular among scientists because having a plant's roots outside of the soil made studying root systems easier. It wasn't until the 1970s that indoor growing methods like hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics left the laboratory for recreational and commercial growing.

In an aeroponic growing growth system, plants are suspended in a closed or semi-closed environment. The plant's roots and lower stems dangle below a foam barrier and are sprayed with an atomized, nutrient-rich water solution. The leaves and fruit (or buds, in the case of cannabis) are separated from the plants' roots by a plant support structure, which usually consists of closed-cell foam compressed around the lower stem. Below the foam barrier, the roots dangle in an aeroponic chamber.

In an ideal environment, the aeroponic chamber is sealed away from pests and disease, which helps plants grow healthier and allows the grower to monitor progress easier by eliminating unforeseen variables. Unfortunately, no system can be 100% sealed away from the environment, so aeroponic grow facilities still need to be vigilant pests and diseases. Since the exposed roots in an aeroponic system are sensitive, they are often paired with a hydroponic system to act as a back up to save the crop in case the aeroponic chamber becomes contaminated.

 

Benefits and Drawbacks of Aeroponics

Aeroponics is currently the most expensive way to grow cannabis, so it isn't ideal for growing a large amount, at least not yet. It does, however, offer the highest degree of control for growers looking to patent new strains and increase potency. Crops grown in aeroponic systems have the highest yield of trichomes. Aeroponic systems also allow growers to reduce the density of pesticides in their operations by lowering the chance of contaminants in the system with the elimination of soil. These systems also take up less space than hydroponic and outdoor grow facilities because the plants' root systems don't need to fight for space. 

Another major benefit of aeroponic systems is its efficiency. On top of the higher survival rate and reduced area, aeroponic systems tend to have a faster grow cycle than soil-based grow facilities. Avid Growing Systems, a company that makes modular aeroponic grow systems claims that their facilities reduce the average grow cycle from 90 days to 60 days, which allows for an extra two harvests every year. Aeroponic systems also drastically cut down on water and fertilizer usage.

One of Avid Growing System's aeroponic chambers

 

Despite all of these benefits, aeroponics is not without drawbacks. Eliminating variables within the system requires a constant stream of atomized water for the roots and electricity for the lighting. It doesn't take long for the plants in the system to die in the case of a power outage, making backup power sources a necessity for an already costly system. A leak or empty reservoir in the water system can be even more catastrophic, which can cause roots without water to start dying within an hour. The high level of supervision required raises the cost of labor to run it because it needs to be monitored 24/7 and the person watching over the system must be knowledgeable about the system and the plants themselves. Aeroponics is not for beginners.

 

How Can Aeroponics Move Forward in the Cannabis Industry?

There are companies who seek to lower the initial cost, knowledge, and labor required to run these systems. One such company is Avid Growing Systems, who make automated, modular systems that can be monitored and controlled remotely. Since the systems are modular, growers can scale incrementally, allowing growers to lower their upfront costs and start growing sooner. Their systems have an array of sensors and can be monitored and controlled through an app. Avid's goal is to reduce the water and energy consumption that is giving the cannabis industry a reputation for being not so green. Time will tell if Avid can accomplish this.

Even if aeroponics doesn't scale easily over the next few years, it will still be an important part of the industry. As the cannabis industry becomes ever more sophisticated, companies with large-scale hydroponic and even outdoor growing facilities are incorporating aeroponics into their business for product development. The advancement of strains is crucial for growers looking to distinguish themselves. Nobody wants to grow the Bud Light of cannabis.

*Have you made your own aeroponic grow system or know of any companies that make aeroponic scaling solutions? Please share them in the comments!

 

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