Our team is pleased to announce that our modular and scalable cylindrical underground systems are officially patent pending, thanks to Daniel Sineway and his colleagues of patent attorneys at Morris, Manning & Martin. It means we’re now able to share more information about the technology - we’re quite excited about it and wanted to give you a preview of this new system we have been working on, which in-house we refer to as small diameter GreenForges.
Small diameter GreenForges
Did you notice how the underground farming systems we’ve made public so far were rectangular in shape, with a large diameter square hole at the surface?
The reason why we started in that direction is because experts in Horticulture which we consulted warned us against working with something else than square spaces. Because otherwise it makes it hard to use existing CEA equipment. And that ends up being true, but as we worked on the design we learnt a good deal about underground construction and decided that the limitations of square holes were not worth it. This realization made us work on a new underground farming system design which is cylindrical, smaller in diameter and extends much deeper. Here’s how a 12 small diameter greenforges farm looks like at the conceptual level:
For existing greenhouses, and eventually broader
Although in spreadsheets the economics are super interesting, we don’t know how well they will be received by farmers, so we’re currently reaching out to existing greenhouse producers in Canada and asking them their opinion. We believe our first clients will most likely be growers who refurbish their existing greenhouses with our underground agricultural systems. To give you an example, our current design of small diameter GreenForges can produce 6 different greens and 10 different herbs, providing annual revenues between $800 and $20,000 per sq.m of greenhouse operation. In contrast, greenhouse producers currently earn between $150 and $250 per sq.m annually.
Our hope is that this will be a powerful enough incentive for producers to work with us, as farmers have access to a lot of funding for equipment and innovation, but rarely for buying new land. It’s an opportunity for farmers who may not have been able to compete with larger land owners.
For the end game, we plan on driving costs down to broaden adoption - even designs able operate without the need of a surface structure. Instead, the systems will have special caps and the equipment will be hosted in a shipping container. This setup will enable anyone who has ownership or legal access to land with the ability to farm to use our systems. Moreover, it will allow for agriculture in times and places where it wasn’t possible before like mountains, deserts, tundra and small islands.
Farming underground at scale in this way will enable farmers to make more money, become large carbon sinks as they let parts of their land regrow vegetation, drastically reduce their water consumption and eliminate their chemical runoffs. This scenario will be as highly beneficial for us humans as it will be for biodiversity on Earth. Everybody wins.
Potential impact of the technology
A healthy population can save billions of dollars to provincial and federal governments. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health entitled “The Economic Benefits of Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Canada” found that more than 75% of Canadians were failing to meet the Canada Food Guide recommendations related to daily servings of fruit and vegetables. The report states that “this results in an annual economic burden of $4.39 billion – $1.47 billion in direct costs such as hospital care, physician services, drugs, etc., and $2.92 billion in indirect costs, such as premature death and disability”. It is said that “the equivalent of one additional serving [of fruit or vegetable] per day translates into annual savings of $878 million.
According to our models, GreenForges can be commercially competitive and, at the stage we are at, could produce lettuce and other greens and herbs under a breakeven cost of $2 CAD per lbs. The fact that they also can produce orders of magnitude more annual revenue per square meter compared to traditional agriculture also means labor is no longer restricted to temporary workers and can be filled by local and highly skilled personnel. By integrating our systems into their businesses, farmers and real estate developers can contribute to creating lots of stable jobs in both urban and rural environments.
As we learned with the pandemic, our economic system must be resilient to shocks. The underground agriculture infrastructure we propose with GreenForges would foster a “shock proof” environment for farmers and their local employees, without impacting the output of their production in case of future confinement decisions or other events impacting the lives of citizens. Plus, of course, there’s the fact that the systems can operate independently of the weather on the surface which will allow people in extreme environments to start farming using GreenForges and contribute to the local economy and food resilience. Can you imagine large farms in the Siberian tundra?
Because the GreenForges use less water and resources and are located underground where they do not get in the way of most life on earth, food production can scale without much overall impact on the environment. On the contrary, the impact predicted would be highly beneficial for life on the surface. Each acre of small diameter GreenForges can yield between 450,000 and 1,140,000 heads of lettuce, which is orders of magnitude higher than field farming. For example, a Californian field farmer will harvest between 50,000 and 100,000 heads of lettuce per acre. So, if we are successful in luring farmers because of the economic potential and if the technology holds up to expectations, it will enable farmers to move production underground at scale and free up large spaces on the surface. The free space on the surface could, for example, be used to support the lumber industry, designed with CO2 capture capacity and biodiversity in mind. At large scales, the technology can help offset a significant amount of emissions and, ultimately, reverse the process of slashing and burning forest to make place for agricultural land, a destructive practice humans started adopting thousands of years ago.
CO2 Capture research
But more trees on the surface isn’t the only consideration when it comes to carbon capture, because almost any plant can grow in hydroponic and aeroponics and that includes plans which can capture CO2 efficiently and in large amounts. So we’re looking into theses crops, talking to experts and doing research towards that direction. It might be interesting for certain industry emiters to have greenforges constructed right besides their factory or power plant in order to capture a large portion, if not most of their emissions.
In the cases of certain crops the absorption goes to extreme levels, for example small diameter GreenForges designed to grow Algae could theoretically absorb large amounts of CO2 up to the equivalent of several thousands trees per forge. And the byproduct can be used to produce plastic precursors, various chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and biofuels. This technique could also use cities' used waters as the primary source of nutrients; and break down a lot of the heavy metals and other nuisible substances.
Design and business challenges
Even though GreenForges require less energy than surface vertical farming due to thermal advantages, the systems still require lots of energy for lighting, making energy, along with labor, the highest costs of these underground farming operations. Because of that, it’s important that the source of energy is renewable and affordable and that we constantly research and experiment with the lighting and other components to save energy. We are also looking at ways to integrate fiber optics or mirrors to move photoactive radiation from the surface into the underground growing environment, leveraging the light of the sun to feed our machines.
Heavy drilling equipment requires a considerable capital upfront to acquire, maintain and deploy. Drilling along with casing consist of a large portion of the construction costs, so we are looking into ways to lower theses costs as well.
Because the drilling can go to high depths, each GreenForges can have hundreds of hydroponic modules, and their costs adds up. So, in order to push that cost down, our engineering and design team has come up with solutions which our procurement team working on right now.
This is obviously just a glimpse into our systems - but I hope you found this overview of our new underground agricultural system design interesting, maybe even inspiring.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more posts coming soon.