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Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Vertical Farming

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Thursday, January 09, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Substantial claims have been made for Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) systems such as vertical farming as an integral part of future food security. It is therefore urgent that we understand the environmental sustainability of these systems, before further commercial expansion. This research will measure the environmental impacts of vertical farming via a thorough analysis of three of the most common commercial scale hydroponic growing techniques: nutrient film technique (NFT), ebb & flood and deep water systems. The student will measure full nutrient budgets during the production of multiple commonly grown hydroponic crops, quantifying all significant nutrient loss pathways and waste products (primarily those of nitrogen (N), carbon (C), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and other trace elements (Mg, Ca, Zn, Cu, B, Fe)). Using commercial data and measured GHGs (N2O and CH4) the student will create a carbon footprint for each of the systems during the crop production phase.

Research questions:
1. What is the nutrient use efficiency of commercial hydroponic systems?
2. What is the carbon footprint associated with the crop production phase in commercial hydroponic systems (including N2O and CH4 for the first time)?
3. Comparing trace element contents of hydroponic crops with conventionally grown products.
4. What nutrients and compounds are flushed into water treatment streams by the systems?
5. Which hydroponic systems are most nutrient and energy efficient?

The student will be based at CEH Edinburgh and will carry out the majority of measurements and analysis in the project under supervision and after training. The student will be trained to take measurements of gases for analysis using a gas chromatography (GC) instrument capable of measuring N2O, CH4 and CO2. The student will learn how to analyse hydroponic nutrient solutions for nitrogen (in the form of ammonium and nitrate) and phosphorus using a SEAL AQ2 colourimetry instrument. Initially, measurements will be made in-house using a VF 5207 vertical farming rack for training purposes. Once confident, the student will travel bi-weekly to the Liberty Produce facility in Dundee (via train) to take measurements during research trials of three commercial scale hydroponic systems (nutrient film technique (NFT), ebb & flood and deep water systems). Liberty Produce will provide more advanced training in the understanding and use of vertical farming systems. The student will undergo acid digestion training at the University of Edinburgh where technicians will analyse digested crops from the systems for trace element analysis using inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES).

These measurements will provide the student with the ability to assess the environmental impacts of the different hydroponic systems, growing multiple crop types such as multiple lettuce species, basil, parsley and other leafy green species. The student will combine the results of the measurements with commercial data (such as energy use) to produce a carbon footprint for each crop type and growing method, under mentorship from Professor Dave Reay.

A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills.The student will receive full training on a variety of instruments and measurement techniques that are widely used by environmental scientists. We run a wide variety of in-house training programs for students to attend that provide future career advice and presentation skills.

On-site specialist training includes:

1. Gas chromatography
2. Chemical handling, preparation and use of SEAL AQ2 colourimetry analyser
3. Expertise working with vertical farming equipment
4. Acid digestion and inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectroscopy preparation
5. Statistical expertise, taught with training in the statistical software R
6. Working with industry, primarily commercial research and development team at Liberty Produce

Funding Notes

For eligibility and to apply, see View Website. More information on the position is available at View Website.

To be eligible to apply for a fully-funded DTP studentship, you must:

1) be a UK or EU citizen or a non-EU citizen with permanent settled status in the UK (known as ‘indefinite leave to remain’)
2) have been ordinarily resident in the UK for at least 3 years prior to the start of the studentship (this applies to all citizen categories).



Kozai, T. et al., (Eds.), 2016. Plant factory: an indoor vertical farming system for efficient quality food production. Elsevier/AP, Academic Press is an imprint of Elsevier, Amsterdam ; Boston.

Al-Chalabi, M., 2015. Vertical farming: Skyscraper sustainability? Sustainable Cities and Society 18, 74–77.


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