Fall 2018 – 497-246: UFarmIIT: Innovative Automation Using Renewable Energy

Meeting Day/Time:
Thursdays from 1:50 to 4:30 pm
Hamid Arastoopour (WISER and ChBE) (arastoopour@iit.edu), in consultation with advisory group that includes Alvin Lee (Institute of Food Safety & Health (IFSH)), Brent Stephens (CAEE), Mohammad Shahidehpour (Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation, WISER and ECE), and Margaret Murphy (WISER) (murphym@iit.edu).
Appropriate Majors
Architecture, Architectural Engineering, Biology, Business, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Civil Engineering, Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Engineering Management, Environmental Engineering, Information Technology & Management, Mechanical Engineering and other interested students.
Technological Innovation

There are many problems in the current agricultural process throughout the world, but they all may point to a single major question: Where does our food come from?  Most produce in U.S. grocery stores comes from farms in California, Florida or other areas with similar climates. A large percentage of that produce is grown using methods to maximize profit at the expense of relatively cheap present resources like water and energy.  To further exacerbate the waste of natural resources, the produce also has to be transported over a vast distance to get to grocery stores throughout the United States. Urban agriculture has the potential to solve many of the above-mentioned problems, albeit on a smaller scale than what would be required to sustain an entire urban environment.

Urban agriculture is the solution to growing food locally and is often more sustainable than traditional farming. When extensive transportation requirements are eliminated from the current food system, there is a significant decrease in the amount of fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. To go along with that, any produce that would have become damaged during the transportation process and thrown away as a result would be consumed instead. A sizable amount of environmental damage could be prevented if more people started farming in their urban environments. Urban agriculture is by no means a complete solution to the problems of the current food system, especially with regard to scale, but it could provide the most feasible near-term solution.

The Urban Agriculture Environment Today. Urban food systems comprise several common forms for more localized food production near population centers, including: (1) traditional small plots of land with or without physical coverage (i.e., high tunnels or hoop houses), (2) greenhouses, (3) rooftop gardens and greenhouses, and (4) high-density indoor agriculture using hydroponics or aquaponics systems. Urban food systems continue to develop along two major pathways:

  1. One approach involves independent growers or community groups, working on a small scale with facilities arranged in vacant or underutilized spaces within and around cities (i.e., community gardens, hoop houses, or greenhouses). One recent study suggested that, dedicating the majority of vacant lots, a small fraction of residential lots, and more than half of every commercial and industrial rooftop in the city of Cleveland, OH, to traditional food production could meet between 46% and 100% of the fresh produce needed, nearly 100% of poultry and eggs, and 100% of honey. However, a number of technical and perceived challenges to widespread implementation of small-scale urban agriculture exist, including issues with soil quality, air quality, safety, policy, and energy and water use requirements.
  2. Another approach involves larger commercial efforts that require new construction or retrofitting existing buildings and adapting underutilized spaces for more intensive indoor agricultural production activities. These systems typically rely on hydroponic growing methods using recirculating water to grow plants with much less water withdrawal than soil-based agriculture, or more advanced aquaponic growing methods that build upon hydroponic systems by integrating fish tanks from which the waste streams are used to enrich the recirculating water to grow plants while simultaneously raising fish for consumption, effectively cycling nutrients from fish wastewater into edible plants.

IPRO Goal. The overall purpose of this IPRO project is to explore innovative solutions to UFarmIIT based on a sustainability strategy for water (e.g., rain collection system and use of an efficient irrigation system), energy (e.g., using solar energy), waste collection and usage, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In addition, the IPRO team will study potential safety issues and the installation of remote monitoring and control systems via embedded sensor networks and communication for the entire UFarmIIT. The specific objective of this IPRO project is threefold:

  1. Completion of a literature survey on UFarm; analysis of food safety issues; exploration of possible solutions for UFarm wastes and its life cycle analysis; analysis of energy and water, and greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints of UFarmIIT and other local urban food systems;
  2. Construction of a rainwater collection system and modification of hoop house and irrigation system; and
  1. Optimization of water needs by installing moisture sensors and remote irrigation for entire UFarmIIT

IPRO Team Approach. The Fall 2018 IPRO team will organize as three sub-teams that focus on the three objectives identified above and described below in greater detail, namely: analysis of food safety issues; exploration of possible solutions for UFarm wastes; energy, water, and greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints of UFarmIIT and other local urban food systems; design and construction of rainwater collection system and modification of hoop house; and optimization of water needs by installing moisture sensors and remote irrigation for entire UFarmIIT. The three sub-teams will meet weekly to provide updates, solicit input and support to address problems encountered, brainstorm new ideas and how they might be addressed, and agree on next steps. During the last two weeks of the semester, the three sub-teams will collaborate more intensively to synthesize their findings and recommendations, document their work for a follow-on IPRO team, prepare an integrated report and presentation, and update the existing UFarmIIT website to reflect semester findings.

Sub-Team One Approach. The IPRO team will conduct a complete literature survey on UFarm issues and challenges and review and follow literature survey and analysis performed by the IPRO 2017 team. The team will use the on-campus and off-site existing urban food production facilities to better understand the issues associated with food safety and UFarm wastes including its life cycle analysis and the energy, water, and GHG footprints of each system, by applying quantitative methods used in assessments of other engineered commercial and industrial systems. The IPRO team will adapt standardized methodologies to evaluate these measurable outputs in urban agriculture facilities and establish methods for evaluating and comparing production capacities, food safety, energy use, and waste. The team will update the comprehensive IPRO data base and existing IPRO website to reflect semester findings and progress since 2017 IPRO team.

Sub-Team Two Approach. The IPRO team will first review and understand all of the design and construction of UfarmIIT including hoop house done by the 2017 IPRO team. In an attempt to be more sustainable, we would need to collect rainwater to be partially independent from city water. The largest unused area on the farm is the roof of the hoop house, which was the perfect location for the collection of rainwater.

The 2017 IPRO team performed the initial design of the hoop house. This design requires the installation of gutters along the length of a hoop house with two water tanks at the front of the structure. Simply, the water would roll down the roof into the gutter and down to the water tank. 2018 IPRO team responsibility includes: review and completion of the design and construction of the entire water collection and irrigation on UFarmIIT. In addition, the responsibility of the team includes installation of water tanks in an elevated structure to be used for additional water storage with needed potential energy of irrigation.

Sub-Team Three Approach. Among the major concerns in urban farming are the creation of potential traffic in the urban area and the time and labor required to maintain farm operations. A possible solution is using renewable energy and electronics to automate the farm. The goal of the IPRO team will be: 1) review and understand the design and construction of the automated system and installation of the initial 3-bed system done by 2017 IPRO team; 2) install the rest of the system for the entire UFarmIIT; and 3) integrate the solar system to operate the farm using solar power that is stored in 12V DC batteries. The batteries will power the sensors that detect the moisture levels in the beds. These sensors will be used to open separate solenoid valves that will allow for each bed to be watered only when needed. This will enable us to operate UFarmIIT independent of both the gas and electricity grids by using energy generated from our solar energy supplies and battery storage and to eliminates the need for any human interaction when watering the plants, allowing for less time and labor spent on the farm.

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