SFU engineering professor Majid Bahrami, along with his research collaborators at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), were recently awarded a $725,000 grant to take sustainable technologies to the next level.

The grant was awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC) for the team’s “From Waste to Clean Food” project to develop sustainable agricultural technologies.  

According to Bahrami, the researchers at KPU will be “developing a model of growing crops, while the researchers at SFU will be responsible for designing clean technologies that optimize crop growth conditions.”

The SFU team is working to develop closed greenhouse technology to produce sustainable crops.

“Temperature, [carbon dioxide] concentration, and humidity are the three most important abiotic factors that contribute to a plant’s growth, along with water and nutrients. But with conventional greenhouses, crops aren’t being cultivated as effectively as they could,” explained Bahrami.

When greenhouses become hot and humid, some of this air needs to be vented out so that the crops don’t wither. However, carbon dioxide that is necessary for plant growth is also released in the process. Some companies combat this issue “by injecting [carbon dioxide] into their greenhouses constantly, which can be expensive,” Bahrami said.

Closed greenhouses, which prevent the loss of carbon dioxide whilst maintaining their internal humidity and temperature, are one way to address this problem. Additionally, any crops can be cultivated within this controlled environment regardless of the season, weather and geographical location, and without the use of pesticides.

However, these greenhouses consume an enormous amount of energy. In order to control a closed greenhouse’s humidity, air conditioners must be installed.

Bahrami explained that low-grade energy, also known as ‘waste heat,’ has the potential to become an alternative source of energy for closed greenhouses. The researchers are hoping to harness this potential through new technologies.

“Waste heat is low-quality energy, and you can’t do much with this energy, except for the space heating,” Bahrami explained.

So what is waste heat? 80% of the energy we produce comes from burning fossil fuels in power plants. When you burn fossil fuels, a significant amount of its energy content converts to waste heat. It’s then released to the ambient, in the form of heat in exhaust and condensers, with temperatures below 100 degrees Celsius. In fact, almost 60% of fuel energy burnt in the engine of a car comes out of the radiator and the exhaust, which is waste heat.

Bahrami’s research will focus extensively on converting this low energy into clean energy — converting solar heat and waste heat into an alternate source of energy for air conditioning — so that we can cut back on our consumption of electricity.

The research will not only benefit the agriculture industries by reducing their electricity bill, but also the environment. The team is currently developing a new air conditioning system that operates on waste heat, but it is still in the lab-stage testing and development stage.

Bahrami recently received an award for another invention — a device that extracts water out of the atmosphere using waste heat.

Fun fact: Matt Damon uses closed greenhouses to grow potatoes and survive on Mars in The Martian.