Students Construct Hydroponic System

College junior Jai Seth and senior Alex Boettcher have designed and built a hydroponics system for the Dobbs University Center (DUC) this semester in order to promote sustainable and local food.

The project also examines the cost benefits of hydroponics, which is the method of growing plants in water instead of soil with consistently high profit margins, according to Boettcher.

The system, which is located next to the salad bar in the DUC, currently grows 50 heads of lettuce in 15 square-feet of space, but it could potentially grow twice that amount, Seth said.

According to Seth, hydroponic farming produces 10 times as much produce per acre as traditional farming.

Boettcher said the most important benefit of hydroponic farming is its complete locality.

The lettuce from the system grows 10 feet from the place where it is consumed as opposed to the 3,000 miles that most lettuce travels to reach the DUC.

He added that while lettuce from the west coast loses valuable nutrients as it travels across the country, the lettuce in the DUC is processed within a day, providing students with completely nutritious food.

Because the system is local, it uses minimal fossil fuels, Boettcher said.

The system also uses one tenth of the water that conventional farming requires because it repeatedly pumps the same water throughout the system, according to Seth.

Additionally, Seth said that because the system is inside, it does not require pesticides and is constantly under lighting, allowing the plants to photosynthesize three times as fast as traditional farming.

Seth and Boettcher first researched hydroponics for a final project in an Interdisciplinary Studies class on the Foundations of Sustainability last semester, Boettcher said.

As economics majors and sustainability minors, the students were drawn to the combination of economic and sustainable benefits of hydroponics, Seth said.

After their final presentation, Interim Executive Director of Food Service Administration Kenny Hemmer approached them and asked them to build the system for the DUC, he added.

Boettcher said that they further researched the farming method during winter break and visited hydroponic farms.

“Our jaws kind of dropped,” Boettcher said. “We were like ‘wow, this is a really interesting concept of indoor growing that is local, sustainable and pesticide free.'”

When they returned to Emory this semester, they received a research grant from the Food Service Administration to build the system, Seth said.

Since Seth and Boettcher began their project, numerous professors have invited them to host guests lectures on the hydroponic farming method and local food in their classes.

While the project is small, Seth and Boettcher said that they hope it will attract the attention of the Emory community.

Seth added that they also hope to expand the system throughout the University and provide different types of vegetables, such as tomatoes, spinach or basil.

He also said that a larger hydroponic system would make significant progress toward reaching Emory’s goal consuming 75 percent local food by 2015.

“This is just a small tiny system … but ultimately it’s more of educational element to tie in the Emory community,” Boettcher said.

— By Elizabeth Howell