High school student grows through summer research experience

Friday, September 9, 2022

Nasser Abukhdeir  and Gamze Ugur

While most high school students were relaxing and enjoying the summer, Gamze Ugur was busy finding new ways to grow leaf vegetables.

Gamze took the initiative of reaching out to Professor Nasser Abukhdeir in pursuit of gaining experience in engineering. Her foray into chemical engineering led her down an unexpected horticultural path. She learned that fluid mechanics and modelling can be applied to plant biology.

Gamze’s task was to set up and evaluate alternative methods of cultivating leaf vegetables in a controlled indoor environment. This involved setting up a reference using traditional soil, along with deep water culture hydroponic and ultrasound-based aeroponic systems that use nutrient solutions instead of soil. The hydroponic system uses aerated water to deliver the solution to the roots of the plant while the aeroponic system uses mist. Gamze learned that both technologies involve chemical engineering concepts, including multiphase hydrodynamics, mass transfer, and vapour/liquid equilibrium.  

The idea of the project was to test the performance of ultrasound-based aeroponic systems compared to traditional hydroponics and soil approaches. Aeroponic systems, while more expensive, have been proven to improve growth rate and yield for some crops compared to traditional farming. Hydroponic and aeroponic systems have desirable sustainability characteristics with significantly reduced water usage and zero fertilizer emissions into the environment.

Gamze had a few problems building the soil, hydroponic and aeroponic units. She had to create many iterations of her aeroponic set-up to solve the issue of excessive mist from the ultrasonic transducer.

She also had another puzzle to solve when seeds in the soil method weren’t germinating, so a heating pad had to be placed underneath.

The issue of light that plants need to grow was addressed by using red and blue LEDs, using only the light spectrum necessary for photosynthesis reduced energy consumption.  

“My biggest takeaway was the need to be creative with solutions”, said Gamze “I learned you can’t really quit, you need to figure out workarounds.”

Abukhdeir’s research aims to develop an ultrasound aeroponic system that is engineered to be scalable to produce large crop yields with low-capital operating costs.

Gamze’s project was part of wider research Abukhdeir is conducting on the benefits of urban agriculture utilizing less space, less water, and less energy than conventional agriculture.

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