To boldly grow where no one has grown before

September 25, 2014

OCE played pivotal role in one of the world’s leading food research programs

Dr. Mike Dixon, University of Guelph professor and Principal Investigator on the high density modular farming project.

What began as research and technology developments for growing fresh produce to support humans in long-term space missions is now being considered for use in the harsh conditions of northern Canada and the deserts of Kuwait.

University of Guelph researcher Dr. Mike Dixon is the Principal Investigator on a project focused on creating special “greenhouse” conditions using LED lighting for growing food all year round in extreme climates. And his research team’s “unconventional, controlled, high density modular farming” has opened the door to a number of exciting opportunities.  

“It’s the same prototype whether it’s minus fifty or plus fifty degrees,” he says. “The challenges are virtually identical and the technology is equally applicable to a sand dune in Kuwait as to a snow bank in Yellowknife.”

Working with the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, Dr. Dixon and his team have shipped their prototype to Kuwait and are heading there in November to assemble and retest it and begin training the local personnel who will operate the farming module. In this area of the Middle East where food security is an issue, there is also a proposal for a pilot project comprised of 30 of these units.

The project will grow strawberries, cherry tomatoes, specialty herbs and lettuces. The growth of fruiting plants under LED lighting is rare and only the beginning as the research team continues its collaborative work with governments here and in Kuwait to expand the list of commodities.

The team has engaged international partners from Norway in the development of the LED technologies. With OCE guidance, the Norwegian group has established a Canadian subsidiary, Intravision Light Systems Inc. Canada, headquartered in Guelph and is already attracting a professional team of managers and sales personnel.

Ontario Centres of Excellence has supported the LED greenhouse project from the beginning. This includes a $200,000 investment that enabled the researchers to expand the scope of the technology under consideration to look at some unconventional approaches to lighting. OCE funding also contributed toward a feasibility study in the Northwest Territories to investigate use of the same modular farming technology.

This moved into the limelight last month when Prime Minister Harper on his annual trip of the North referenced the LED greenhouse technology as part of the federal government’s commitment to creating a viable commercial agricultural industry in the Canadian North. Two million dollars is being put toward the launch of the Northern Greenhouse Initiative including the AgNorth pilot project.

The OCE-supported project is also continuing to pursue its original direction beyond Earth’s borders. Dr. Dixon and his team competed successfully as part of an international team in the European Union Horizon 2020 Program, the biggest ever economic union research and innovation funding programme for large-scale multinational collaborative projects to support the commercialization of major new discoveries. Dr. Dixon’s project will be part of life support research for the International Space Station.

“We’re in charge mainly of the nutrient management technology and water recycling in artificial environments for the support of human life,” says Dr. Dixon. 

He points out that all the projects are closely interrelated and spinoffs of the original OCE- supported research into LED lighting.

“This has been going on for the last 20 years and OCE funding has been a core of the research activity for all of that time. I can say that OCE has played a pivotal role in leveraging our program and establishing it as the world’s leading research program in this field,” says Dixon. 

“This was a sound investment for OCE and we are proud to have played a role in supporting this work,” says OCE President Dr. Tom Corr. “The benefits in terms of job creation, economic benefits, and health promotion are now being realized and there is every reason to believe that this technology will continue to contribute greatly to meeting some of the world’s major agricultural and food supply challenges.”

Other partners in the project include Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, Aurora Research Institute, NSERC and the Canadian Space Agency.