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    Growth Market : 4th Young Inventors Award (Winner : Bronzer)
    Oleh : Pramudita Anggraita
    Sabtu, 24 Januari 2004 (06:52 WIB) dari IP


    Growth Market

    A new system for delivering water and nutrients to plants in a soil-less growth chamber shows promise


    By Trish Saywell/SINGAPORE

    Issue cover-dated January 22, 2004


    IT PAYS TO BE ATTENTIVE in physics classes. That may be the big lesson from a new system developed by two Singaporean university students to deliver water and nutrients to plants grown in a soil-less environment.

    Joanna Tan and Ginny Tan (not related) have developed a hothouse irrigation system that saves money on the cost of equipment to set up the plant-growing operation and also saves on the energy and complexity needed to keep operating. For their achievement, the two have won the 2003 Bronze Award in the REVIEW's 4th Young Inventors Awards.

    The invention of a new irrigation system came as a response to something that has driven much innovation in the history of technological achievement: a simple mistake. As third-year students at Singapore's Ngee Ann Polytechnic, the Tans one day forgot to flip the switch on a generator that ran the pumps sustaining a crop of butterhead lettuce with water and nutrients. The entire crop died.

    The students were growing the lettuce on the rooftop of the polytechnic's life-sciences lab using a conventional "aeroponics" system. In that system, the lettuce roots dangle in the air from a polystyrene lattice in an enclosed growth chamber. A pump forces water through tubes, and the water emerges as mist containing a nutrient solution. Hot, moist air generated by the pump, which can damage plant roots, is cooled by an electric chiller.

    Joanna and Ginny decided to focus on developing a different system to deliver nutrients that would generate only a fraction of the heat, and therefore eliminate the need for a cooling system. After six months of thinking and brainstorming about the problem, the students came up with their "air-dynaponics" system.

    In their prototype, a small air pump of a kind that might be found in an aquarium replaces the bigger pump needed with aeroponics. A smaller pump can be used because of a physical property of airflow that would be familiar to engineers studying lift in aircraft or students looking at fundamental physical properties. Called the venturi effect, this property relies on the fact that a constant flow of air through a narrowing tube increases in velocity.

    Joanna and Ginny found that by tapering the width of the tube they used to mist plants they could achieve a nutrient spray that required much less force than before. Less pumping power meant that they could use a relatively tiny pump that didn't generate much heat and require a chiller. "We're saving a lot on energy consumption," notes 20-year-old Joanna. "This invention can be useful anywhere where there isn't much energy available, such as in developing countries in the Middle East."

    When the two students compared the lettuce grown using their air-dynaponics system and lettuce grown under traditional aeroponics, they found that the crops were of equal weight and similar quality. The main difference: Lettuce grown aeroponically was more prone to root damage. Indeed, temperatures taken at the root of the plants were at least 6 degrees Celsius higher than for crops grown using their prototype.

    Also important, unlike the aeroponics system where electrical-power failure typically ruins crops, the air-dynaponics system has a shallow reservoir of nutrients that can sustain plants during a power failure.

    Now the Tans, who have recently graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic's three-year diploma course in life sciences, hope their successors at the school can carry on and build a larger model of the system that could be broken down into modular kits and sold to the public. Their project supervisor, Gregory Chow, is optimistic: "The market is there but we have to educate the public."

    The system could quickly become valuable in a country like Singapore, which imports 90f its vegetables. Joanna and Ginny say their soil-less cultivation technique drastically cuts back on the use of both energy and water. It costs just S$0.50 (29 U.S. cents) to produce one kilogram of lettuce grown air-dynaponically, which is a tenth of the cost using aeroponics.

    Chow hopes that schools in Singapore will start using the system. "The system is not high maintenance," he explains. "It's easier to convince people to grow their own vegetables now."


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