Aeroponics 101 and the NASA connection

what is aeroponics, full beginners guide to aeroponics

What is Aeroponics?

The word Aeroponics is made from two Latin words i.e. “Aero” meaning air and “ponic” meaning labour. It basically means making plants work in the air.

Aeroponics is a highly specialized farming technique in which we use a setup (as shown below) to hang the plant roots in a dark chamber and supply nutrients to the roots using an automatic sprayer or fogger. 

This means aeroponics is a soilless agriculture technique where you can grow plants by only using a few automatic devices and nutrient solutions. This is fundamentally different from other cultures like aquaponics, hydroponics, and even plant tissue culture as here you do not use any kind of growing medium or substrate to support your plant.  

Aeroponics is widely used to grow different types of plants ranging from tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, and also decorative plants like chrysanthemum, poinsettia, etc.

Growing With Compact Fluorescents

The technique is more profitable in terms of the yield and the water required to grow the same amount of crops in any other culture.  

Aeroponic gardens are widely used in the food industry to get fresh vegetables, salads, and smokey herbs. They are also used in schools to get children close to plants and see how a plant grows.

These systems are also now gaining popularity in corporate offices where employees are enjoying fresh fruits from aeroponic farms placed right in their offices. 

Suggested reading “21 Best Hydroponic Gardening Gifts – Holiday Season 2021

History of Aeroponics

Aeroponics came into life when researchers started to observe the life of plants near a waterfall that grew on rocks. Now, these plants had exposed root systems and the mist in the environment which was naturally formed by the waterfall provided them with essential nutrients. These types of conditions are naturally developed in tropical islands like Maldives, Fiji, Hawaii, Barbados, etc. 

Plants on Rocks

Aeroponics came into life when researchers started to observe the life of plants near a waterfall that grew on rocks. Now, these plants had exposed root systems and the mist in the environment which was naturally formed by the waterfall provided them with essential nutrients. These types of conditions are naturally developed in tropical islands like Maldives, Fiji, Hawaii, Barbados, etc. 

It is also believed that the wall paintings found in the temples of Deir el Bahari in Egypt show the first-ever documented incident of aeroponic gardening. 

Wall Paintings of Egypt

It is also believed that the wall paintings found in the temples of Deir el Bahari in Egypt show the first-ever documented incident of aeroponic gardening. 

In the early 1900s, the technology was used mostly by researchers to study root physiology and do experiments with multiple root cultures. At that time, no one ever thought of it as a feasible crop production technique due to its complexity. 

The Early 1900s

In the early 1900s, the technology was used mostly by researchers to study root physiology and do experiments with multiple root cultures. At that time, no one ever thought of it as a feasible crop production technique due to its complexity. 

On paper, Aeroponics was first used by a scientist named Baker in a report called Long Ashton Research station annual report: Studies on root development, published in 1922. From then onwards, this technique is used to study the root physiology of plants in controlled environments by researchers across the globe. 

First Scientific Evidence

On paper, Aeroponics was first used by a scientist named Baker in a report called Long Ashton Research station annual report: Studies on root development, published in 1922. From then onwards, this technique is used to study the root physiology of plants in controlled environments by researchers across the globe. 

Researchers also did their own variations in the technique by trying to use water vapours, growing smaller herbs and shrubs, and then eventually growing out apple trees with only spray culture. 

Research continues…

Researchers also did their own variations in the technique by trying to use water vapours, growing smaller herbs and shrubs, and then eventually growing out apple trees with only spray culture. 

The name “Aeroponics” was given by Professor F.W Went in his book named “The experimental growth of plant growth” published in the year 1957. The professor grew coffee plants and tomatoes in his watertight containers filled with nutrient mist.  

Term “Aeroponics” came into existence

The name “Aeroponics” was given by Professor F.W Went in his book named “The experimental growth of plant growth” published in the year 1957. The professor grew coffee plants and tomatoes in his watertight containers filled with nutrient mist.  

In 1983, the first-ever commercial aeroponic system was developed by R.J Stoner’s company named GTi and the system was termed “The Genesis Rooting System”. R.J Stoner is also known as the father of American Aeroponics technology. He was able to successfully develop a system that can easily be scaled to grow a large number of crops with the help of aeroponics which was not done earlier. 

Father of American Aeroponics

In 1983, the first-ever commercial aeroponic system was developed by R.J Stoner’s company named GTi and the system was termed “The Genesis Rooting System”. R.J Stoner is also known as the father of American Aeroponics technology. He was able to successfully develop a system that can easily be scaled to grow a large number of crops with the help of aeroponics which was not done earlier. 

😍Fun Fact – The Genesis Rooting System was named after the Genesis Project in the movies Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Advantages 

One of the major advantages of Aeroponics is that it saves you a lot of water and a lot of nutrient and fertilizer use is reduced. 

Now you may be wondering how much is a lot?

So, according to the studies, it has been observed that plants grown in an Aeroponic system consume 90% less water and require 60% fewer nutrients to grow up to the same level as grown by the traditional method.

Water consumption is even lower than what is required in hydroponics and aquaponics. As mist or spray devices are used the efficiency of the system is very high. 

Other advantages are as follows

Low Cost

Although you might get an Aeroponic system a little costlier than some hydroponic ones, in the long term an aeroponic system pays for itself as fewer moving components are involved. Especially, it takes a lesser nutrient solution and no grow media. Hence a lot of costs is saved.  

Damage Reduction

As compared to the traditional method of agriculture which involves soil, in Aeroponics lesser damages occur to the plants due to diseases. This is because plants do not share the same soil and are at a distance from each other, it reduces the chances of spreading a disease, bacteria, fungi, algae, or anything like that. 

Accelerated Harvest times

It is seen that as roots are always suspended in air, they get enough oxygen and CO2, which increase the rate of photosynthesis and hence increase the rate of production of leaf mass. As per research, the harvest times are lowered by 40-60% as compared to conventional farming.  

Less Water Consumption

As we are using a mist/spray of nutrients and not actually overflowing the garden pot that we usually do, this saves a lot of water. Also, in hot and dry climates surface water gets lost to evaporation.

High Automation

As the spray nozzles and pumps are connected to timers and sensors like pH meter, temperature scale, humidity sensor are connected to each other, the system can sustain itself by adjusting the frequency of misting and also adjusting lighting conditions accordingly. This makes aeroponics a highly advanced rapid growth system.

Disadvantages

The high initial investment for a large scale aeroponic system for commercial use. It can cost somewhere around $5,000 – $10,000 to set up a large scale facility. While in the traditional way we can easily start planting crops with just half of the investment.  

The maintenance cost is high. Aeroponic farms are very expensive to maintain as there is a cost associated with the complex nature of the devices used in the system. 

Sometimes the misters or foggers may not kick in at the right times or get clogged, which can break the uniformity of the plant nutrient routine. Or one part of the system may get disproportionate nutrients than the other. 

It is complex to understand the intricacies of an Aeroponic system. Though fewer efforts are required proper knowledge is required to manage the system and get regular yields. 

Few people believe that plants grown with the Aeroponic technique are not as nutritious as traditional crops. Though this myth has been busted by many scientific researchers. 

NASA and Aeroponics

Did you know that NASA Astraunauts use Aeroponics in space to grow plants? Yes, it’s true. Experiments regarding the plant growth conducted on the international space station use Aeroponic technology as it is easier to handle mist rather than water in zero gravity. 

In 1997, NASA did an experiment where they grew an Asian variety of high-protein beans called the adzuki bean. The seeds were planted in an Aeroponic system on the space station and similar seeds were also planted on the Earth. It was observed that the seeds that were planted in the space station grew more. 

The Aeroponic system is also known as the rapid-growth technology because as per NASA sources, Tomatoes grown in Aeroponic chambers can be transplanted within just 10 days after seeding them, while it takes normal tomato plants almost a month to be transplanted from a pot to the soil. 

This rapid growth results in having six cycles of tomato harvest when using Aeroponics as compared to just two cycles in the traditional method. 

Components of Aeroponic System

Atomizers

Spray misters, atomizers, or foggers, whatever the name may be, this equipment is the most important for any Aeroponic system. How it works is that the high-pressure water line is released onto these atomizers and they break that water line into smaller droplets of the size of 20-30 microns. (1 micron = 10-6 meter)

The nozzle size varies according to the need. Bigger nozzle sizes require more pressure and also consume more water for the same interval. The selection of nozzle and orifice depends on the type of Aeroponic farm and plant requirement. 

The high-pressure atomizers are classified as follows

TypeOrifice Droplet Size
Fine atomizer10 – 100 microns
Hydro5 – 50 microns
Jet Nozzle0.025 inch5 – 50 microns per second
Spray Jet0.016 inch5 – 25 microns per second

Droplet size

For most plants in an Aeroponic system, a droplet size of 20 – 100 microns is required for optimum growth. Different droplet sizes play different roles within the chamber.

0 – 30 microns – These droplets remain suspended in the air as fog particles and maintain the humidity inside the chamber.

30 – 100 microns – These droplets are the ones that make actual contact with the roots of the plant providing adequate nutrition for rapid growth. 

>100 microns – These droplets become too big to reach the roots and fall out in the chamber. This reduces the oxygen levels within the chamber.   

High-Pressure Water Pumps

A high-pressure pump is used to deliver the nutrient-rich solution into the spray nozzle from the reservoir at a uniform pressure. 

To create droplets of idea size of 20 – 100 microns the aeroponic pumps need to maintain a constant pressure of around 80 – 100 PSI. Reverse osmosis booster pumps or diaphragm pumps are used in Aeroponic gardening. 

Misting Frequency

Misting frequency is also an essential parameter to successfully run the Aeroponic system. There are two ways to mist the chamber, one being continuous misting and another one being intermittent misting. 

The second one saves energy as the pump runs for less duration. It is important to maintain misting cycles such that the roots are not dry between the misting cycles. As a rule of thumb, Aeroponic systems use 1-2 minutes of misting followed by a 5 minutes break cycle. 

This also depends on the stages. If a plant is in the growth stage then the roots will consume the nutrients faster and hence more frequent misting cycles are required. 

Nutrient Reservoir

There are two types of system, one in which a nutrient reservoir is outside the growth chamber and one in which the bottom of the growth chamber acts as the nutrient reservoir. 

Also, Read “8 Steps to Master Hydroponic Nutrient Solution

The latter one gets cumbersome as the roots start to get bigger and reach the nutrient solution below. 

Sensors 

Other important components of the system include a humidity sensor, a temperature probe, a light sensor, and obviously a pH & EC meter kit. These all Aeroponic equipment helps in maintaining the growth cycles of the crops.

Cost of Aeroponic systems 

As we have already discussed that Aeroponics systems are costlier than hydroponics or traditional method of growing crops. 

On average, a hydroponic NFT system can be built DIY and started within the $200 – $400 range. This cost includes the cost of nutrients, seeds, grow light, grow medium, etc. In contrast to this, it cost on average $600 – $1200 to build and start an Aeroponic garden. 

Some of the readymade vertical tower Aeroponic farms are available at a retail price of $1000 – $1500. 

Aeroponic vs Hydroponics

AeroponicsHydroponics
RootsPlaced in an enclosed chamber, suspended in the airSupported by grow medium and immersed in nutrient solution
NutrientsThe solution is converted into the mist with help of nozzlesThe solution is directly used 
Grow mediumNo grow medium required Grow media require to support the plant and act as a wick to support roots
YieldBetter quality and more leaf mass Standard quality with lower leaf mass than aeroponics
CO2 exposureHigh exposure keeps the roots oxygenatedLow exposure creates aeration problems and root rot 
Disease DamagePlants do not share grow medium and are spaced out, diseases do not spreadBacteria or fungus can spread easily as plants roots are immersed in the same solution
Water requirementAs per NASA, it takes 98% less water than the traditional methodTwice the water required for aeroponics
Fertilizer requirementNo fertilizer required Fertilizer required occasionally to prevent root rot, algae, or aphids
ElectricityHigh electricity use as pumps need to work throughout the dayLess electricity is required as compared to aeroponics
MaintainanceHigh, as devices involved are complex in natureLow, simple setup and easy to replace parts
Cost High cost, the initial investment can be around $300 – $500Low Cost, can start with just $50 – $200