The Help2Grow project coordinated by the University of Turin’s Agroinnova Centre aims to reduce energy consumption and resources used and ensure optimal environmental conditions for production and crop health
Integrating digital technologies and agricultural production to achieve a reduction in energy consumption and resources used in the greenhouse and in the field. At the same time ensuring favourable environmental conditions for cultivation and increasing crop productivity and health, thanks to remote monitoring of the environment and plants.
The two-year (2021-2022) Help2Grow project, financed by the Piedmont Region – Por Fesr 2014/2020, aims at this ambitious goal. The project is coordinated by the Agroinnova Centre of the University of Turin, whose director is Professor Maria Lodovica Gullino, and involves companies developing new technologies for agriculture 4.0.
«Help2Grow is a project that experiments with technologies installed, for the first time in the world, in the Agroinnova Centre,” says Massimo Pugliese, Professor of Plant Pathology at the Department of Agricultural, Forestry and Food Sciences (Disafa) of the University of Turin, who is in charge of the experimental trials in the Agroinnova Centre’s greenhouses.
“It aims to apply artificial intelligence technologies to agricultural crops to increase energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption as much as possible. And it also intends to adopt innovative technologies that improve the productivity and health of crops with respect to fungal diseases such as white blight, downy mildew and tracheofusarium, so as to reduce the use of agrochemicals and thus production costs, to the benefit of the environment. The project evaluates the energy consumption, growth and health of protected crops (tomato, basil and lettuce) and wine grapes under real conditions, but is also aimed at open field horticultural crops and fruit crops»
Energy efficiency is based on the integration of technologies from project leader Enerbrain to manage the environmental conditions in the greenhouse. It is done with the use of luminescent solar concentrators (Lsc) from Glass To Power to generate electricity.
«Enerbrain is an innovative scale-up from Turin, founded in 2015, which has developed a technological product, ‘Enerbrain system’, consisting of a combination of hardware and software for an air-conditioning system management aimed at the energy efficiency of buildings. This product developed by Enerbrain is being applied for the first time in an agricultural production context. The Help2Grow project aims to intelligently control the energy consumption of a greenhouse in order to reduce it and to integrate the use of renewable energy. It relies on the installation of a combination of sensors and actuators in the greenhouse to manage thermo-hygrometric conditions, i.e. the opening and closing of side and ridge windows, cooling and heating. And for environmental and energy monitoring».
The environmental monitoring and management system developed by Enerbrain, adds Pugliese, is then combined with another innovative technology from Glass To Power, a start-up company founded in 2016 as a spin-off of the University of Milan Bicocca and based in Rovereto (Tn), which is among the first in the world to produce luminescent solar concentrators (Lsc) for electricity production.
«Lscs are semi-transparent panels with coloured nanomaterials capable of absorbing and re-emitting sunlight, which is then directed along the edges of the slab where there are mini solar cells for producing electricity. As part of the Help2Grow project, Glass To Power has produced photovoltaic devices that are well suited for covering greenhouses and have an electrical production efficiency of between 1.5% and 2.5% and degrees of transparency that vary between 30% and 70%, while always maintaining a high level of indoor brightness».
These innovative panels provide a number of advantages for the design of new, energy-independent greenhouses. «In fact, traditional photovoltaic panels have physical limitations for application to greenhouse structures due to their configuration, which decreases the light supply to the crops. In contrast, the recently developed technology of LSCs makes it possible to overcome this problem thanks to their remarkable transparency, which can be modulated depending on the cultivation area: in southern Italy or other Mediterranean environments, where the sun’s irradiation is greater, transparency can drop to 30-40%, whereas in northern Italy, where the luminosity is certainly less, it can rise to 60-70%. In fact, in the Agroinnova centre’s greenhouses, we have positioned panels with 60% transparency», he says.
Moreover, Pugliese emphasises, the Lscs, thanks to their structure and fully optical operating mechanism, are able to modulate the spectrum of sunlight that, flowing through the glass, affects the crops. This favours the wavelength most important for crop development, for example with potential benefits for chlorophyll photosynthesis. In practice, by combining these technologies, which we are the first in the world to experiment with in a greenhouse environment, we are creating in the Agroinnova centre’s greenhouses a 4.0 cultivation environment characterised by the reduction of energy consumption, the production of electricity, and the modulation and management of the thermo-hygrometric and light environmental conditions that optimise the growth of cultivated plants and, by preventing the development of fungal adversities, support their health».
In line with the Agriculture 4.0 approach, Internet of Things (IoT) technologies paired with new intelligent algorithms make it possible to monitor the health of plants remotely and to coordinate plant health and energy management of greenhouses in an integrated manner, for the combined optimisation of crop health and energy consumption. “Environmental, energy and agricultural monitoring data are sent to the cloud, to be processed through the development of new intelligent algorithms for visualisation and implementation of control strategies.
Visualisation takes place on a new UX/UI panel (dashboard) developed specifically for the Help2Grow project, which in the future can be introduced and used in greenhouses for holistic, timely and simple energy control».
Treating water against salinity
The extensive and innovative technological background of the Help2Grow project, informs Pugliese, is completed by the technologies brought in by the company AT Marmo Service of Milan and Novara as distributor, on behalf of the Swiss company Treelium, of systems for treating water by means of cavitation for use in agriculture, construction and industry.
«The properties of water, due to the effect of activation by cavitation, are changed in terms of wetting power, surface tension and thermal potential. This has a dual effect: the reduction of the microbial load and the separation of any mineral compounds present in much smaller components, with a decrease in both the salinity of the water and the risk of clogging in irrigation and fertigation systems. However, these changes in the properties of water have never yet been studied under controlled conditions in agriculture, so the project intends to apply these systems in pilot crops by comparing through a scientific approach the products obtained with those obtainable under normal conditions. In addition, the AT Marble Service develops and supplies nanomaterials for the Help2Grow project, in particular tourmalines, i.e. siliceous minerals that possess characteristics of high pyroelectricity and strong cation exchange. Which therefore produce an ionising effect capable of counteracting the presence and proliferation of pathogenic microorganisms in the rhizosphere. We are evaluating the application of tourmalines to reduce the development of fungal diseases in the root system, such as tracheofusariosis».
«We analyse all the variables»
Evaluations on the open-cycle soilless cultivation of tomatoes, basil and lettuce, which are grown in pots with a substrate consisting of peat mixed with perlite, are carried out by Pugliese together with Professor Francesco Savorani’s group from the Department of Applied Science and Technology (Disat) at the Polytechnic of Turin. «In addition to evaluating vegetative development and the incidence and severity of fungal diseases, we carry out analyses using analytical instrumentation (SCiO molecular sensor, produced by the company Consumer Physics) based on near-infrared (nir) spectroscopy. We analyse the collected data using multivariate techniques, i.e. mathematical techniques based on statistical approaches generally known as ”chemiometry”. These techniques make possible to modelling the information contained in the data in a holistic manner, simultaneously considering all possible correlations between the measured variables, which in the present case are represented by the wavelengths acquired with the portable instrument.
The analysis makes possible to identify a temporal trend linked to the growth of the plants and their state of health, thus being able to distinguish them on the basis of the effectiveness of the treatments and the technologies applied. Moreover, such a system is non-destructive. In the future, it can be fully automated and digitised and will provide real-time information on plant development and health that can be monitored remotely».