Boosting efficiency in plant growth through hydroponic media substitute

Niagara College’s applied research breadth and depth in agricultural technology innovation has grown one research project into the potential for a long-standing global partnership, thanks to early results from the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC).

International Zeolite Corporation (IZC), an international marketer and supplier of natural zeolite and zeolite-infused products, has been working with AETIC over the past year on growth trials related to an innovative substrate to efficiently supply nutrients for plant growth.

Through a recently formed economic association with the University of Havana, Cuba, IZC has acquired permission to test a zeolite-based substrate, embedded with nutrients, developed at the University of Havana called NEREA®, with the goal of assessing potential market adoption by and corresponding benefit to the greenhouse sector of agriculture in Canada and the United States.

Early research in some crops has shown environmental impact benefits by using fewer nutrient inputs during growth cycles, with a product that can be reused during that cycle, resulting in fast germination with good-sized crops. IZC came to Niagara College to conduct further growth trials to determine the efficacy of the product on certain crops, including Lactuca sativa, otherwise known as ‘Buttercrunch’ lettuce. The AETIC research team included research lead and faculty member Derek Schulz; researcher Christine George; technologist Branka Milunovic; and student research assistants.

“The level of collaboration between the research team and our company was outstanding,” notes Mark Pearlman, IZC president and COO. “It felt like we were all working towards identifying breakthrough opportunities to improve agriculture.”

So, what is NEREA® and how did it perform for the NC team? The NEREA® technology is based on charging zeolite, which can be periodically recharged with nutrients to promote and sustain plant growth for an entire growing season. It differs from conventional greenhouse hydroponic systems in that the plants access the nutrients as they are required and receive only water, rather than constantly supplying nutrients to the plants in solution. Conventional media for growing crops hydroponically in a greenhouse are rockwool, coir, or peat-based, all of which are single use, and the environmental impact of single use media is significant.

On the other hand, zeolite-based NEREA® has the potential to be reused and to enhance plant growth, due to a consistent nutrient supply, as a result of what is known as cation exchange capacity (CEC)-based pre-charge.

“The level of collaboration between the research team and our company was outstanding. It felt like we were all working towards identifying breakthrough opportunities to improve agriculture.”
~ Mark Pearlman, IZC president and COO

To provide evidence-based research for further development and marketing, the team at AETIC performed a small-scale trial on the lettuce, in the NC greenhouse hydroponic system, using NEREA® as substrate embedded with nutrients. NEREA® acted as a hydroponic substrate substitution for rockwool media. Crop performance was measured from germination to harvest in the trial comparing NEREA® and a rockwool substrate.

Results showed that the NEREA® substrate demonstrated faster and more abundant germination, suggesting the potential for shortened crop time, allowing more crops grown per year. NEREA® provided nutrients for leaf and root growth with no observable deficiencies from the control, indicating that NEREA® can provide all necessary nutrients for growth of the lettuce over 28 days. Further, lettuce grown in NEREA® was larger with more leaves than the rockwool substrate.

“The complimentary depth of knowledge found within the NC research team provided us with significant value outside of the intended project outcomes,” says Pearlman. “International Zeolite is using this information in its formulation of a go-to market strategy. The team not only understands the technical aspects of agriculture, but also the behaviour of growers in terms of adoption of breakthrough technologies.”

As noted, the partnership with Niagara College and the AETIC team will continue, as other crops are tested (for example, using a solid substrate containing NEREA®), and discussions on market strategy and potential partnerships with the business research team unfold.

“We would like to see Niagara college take a leadership role in the development from both a technical standpoint and the overall go-to market strategy,” notes Pearlman.

This project was made possible through funding from the Niagara College-led Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).


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