The Future of Urban Farming

Researchers at Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Cornell collaborate on $2.42million program for advanced urban farming

November 17, 2017

Recently, the Center for Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications (LESA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) team at Cornell University were awarded a three-year $2.42 million grant from the National Science Foundation through the organization’s new funding initiative called “Innovation at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water” (INFEWS). Pictured here, a behind the scenes view of of research in Tessa Pocock's lab. Pocock, a a global expert on photobiology, focuses on the relationships between lighting and plant physiology. Photo credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute/Kris Qua

Troy, NY – Growing food year-round is not a new concept. Today, researchers are exploring a sustainable way to increase access to locally grown food, through urban farming, which fosters the growth or production of food in a city or heavily populated town or municipality. Recently, the Center for Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications (LESA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) team at Cornell University were awarded a three-year $2.42 million grant from the National Science Foundation through the organization’s new funding initiative called “Innovation at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water” (INFEWS). The awarded research project, Strategic FEW and Workforce Investments to Enhance Viability of Controlled Environment Agriculture in Metropolitan Areas, will develop a multi-dimensional toolkit to guide the development of a metropolitan-based CEA.

According to the research team, controlled environment agriculture (CEA), such as greenhouses or plant factories, may provide an alternative to conventional systems of field-based production and long-distance transportation to supply metropolitan areas with locally-grown vegetables.  In addition, potential benefits of metro CEA include decreased transportation of the food, reduced water use compared with field-based production, economic growth, new jobs and workforce development.

Tessa Pocock, a global expert on photobiology and relationships between lighting and plant physiology, who serves as a senior research scientist at LESA, will lead the work at Rensselaer. The growth systems, operating guidelines and workforce development programs that will be developed in this research is part of a broad collaboration between LESA and Cornell University exploring the future of advanced CEA systems as part of advancing sustainable urban food supplies.

“Through the RPI and Cornell partnership, this research addresses many challenges currently being faced by metropolitan food producers,” said Pocock. “We look forward to utilizing advanced technologies to increase resource use efficiency across the urban farming industries.”

Pocock will work on the effect of LED light programs on water use efficiency and nutrient content of crop plants. In parallel, Marianne Nyman, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rensselaer will work on developing new methods for assessing plant nutrient content to quantify CEA growth system performance.

“I look forward to being a part of this exciting project in advancing the field of urban farming research by inventing new analytical measurement methods for selected xanthophylls (nutrients) as these types of standards are very expensive for general use,” said Nyman. “The collaboration with researchers from RPI and Cornell will create opportunities for us to also evaluate novel systems to optimize economic benefits as well as water, energy, and other resource use efficiencies in CEA vegetable production.”

Pocock and Nyman will also work with a team of CEA experts led by Neil Mattson, the lead investigator of GLASE at Cornell and associate professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell on CEA economic modeling, system design and workforce development that will advance the future of metropolitan food production.

“I’m excited about this project’s partnership with RPI and Cornell University to further explore the capacity and challenges for urban agriculture producers to provide nutritious, local, year-round food for consumers,” said Mattson. “By putting all these pieces together—including energy, water, workforce development and economic viability – we hope to discover if CEAs makes sense for producing food for the masses.”

The INFEWS research project will also provide research experience to several graduate students, and several undergraduate students who will have an opportunity to participate in summer internship experiences with CEA industry members. Workforce development training, including online curricula and in-person short courses, will contribute to the professional development of potential metro CEA employees.

The recent award augments the systems that will be developed by a public-private consortium called GLASE—The Greenhouse Lighting and Systems Engineering Consortium, led by researchers at Cornell University and Rensselaer that was launched this past summer, to transform the way greenhouses operate in order to reduce electricity use by 70 percent.

The seven-year, $5 million project funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) will advance Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s Clean Energy Standard that aims to have 50 percent of electricity come from renewable energy sources by 2030.

LESA’s vision is focused on creating digitized illumination for new applications in lighting, healthcare, building management, horticulture, and advanced 5G wireless communications platforms. The controlled environment agriculture research project exemplifies The New Polytechnic, an emerging paradigm for teaching, learning, and research at Rensselaer. The New Polytechnic emphasizes and supports collaboration across disciplines, sectors, and regions to address the great global challenges of our day, using the most advanced tools and technologies, many of which are developed at Rensselaer. Research at Rensselaer addresses some of the world’s most pressing technological challenges—from energy security and sustainable development to biotechnology and human health. The New Polytechnic is transformative in the global impact of research, in its innovative pedagogy, and in the lives of students at Rensselaer.

About the Center for Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications (LESA) ERC

Funded primarily by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the LESA ERC is an interdisciplinary, multi-university center developing “Smart Lighting Systems that See and ThinkTM”.  The Center engages faculty members, graduate students, research staff, and undergraduates to work on research leading to smart lighting systems with adaptive and controllable properties that will change the way society uses lighting.  The Center joins academia, industry, and government in partnership to produce transformational engineered systems, along with engineering graduates who are adept at innovation and primed for leadership in the global economy.  The LESA ERC is headquartered at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, and partners with Boston University, The University of New Mexico, and Thomas Jefferson University to achieve its objectives.

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is America’s first technological research university. For nearly 200 years, Rensselaer has been defining the scientific and technological advances of our world. Rensselaer faculty and alumni represent 85 members of the National Academy of Engineering, 17 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 25 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 8 members of the National Academy of Medicine, 8 members of the National Academy of Inventors, and 5 members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as 6 National Medal of Technology winners, 5 National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With 7,000 students and nearly 100,000 living alumni, Rensselaer is addressing the global challenges facing the 21st century—to change lives, to advance society, and to change the world. To learn more, go to

Written By Jessica Otitigbe
Press Contact Jessica Otitigbe
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