These Joburg students are growing high-tech weed – and govt has given it a nod of approval
- Using AI-driven lighting systems and closed-loop hydroponics, master’s students have developed a high-tech cannabis cultivation system which uses less resources to produce greater yields.
- The engineering team, based at Wits university in Johannesburg, has received special recognition from the Gauteng Development Agency.
- The system will now enter a robust research and development phase at the BioPark facility in Gauteng.
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A team of master's students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg is using bioscience algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to cultivate high-yielding cannabis crops.
The growing method has received special recognition from the Gauteng Development Agency's Innovation Hub with support from local government.
It's been almost three years since South Africa's Constitutional Court decriminalised the personal use and cultivation of cannabis.
The landmark ruling has drawn further attention to the plant's medicinal and economic potential, with the Cannabis Development Council of South Africa proposing that the legal market could be worth around R27 billion by 2023.
Cannabis has been touted as a "new sector of the economy" by Gauteng Premier David Makhura, and international investors are flocking to southern Africa as part of the latest "green gold" rush.
It's against this backdrop that two Wits engineering students, Constant Beckerling and Anlo van Wyk, have caught Gauteng Development Agency's attention. The pair, founders of AgriSmart Engineering, received special recognition from the agency's annual Innovation Hub competition in 2020.
Beckerling, van Wyk, and their extended AgriSmart team made it into the Gauteng Accelerator Programme's finals (GAP) – an initiative aimed at recognising entrepreneurs who develop tech solutions that stand to benefit South Africa across a wide range of categories. This has opened up further opportunities for the team.
"We've recently partnered with BioPark in Gauteng, which is a subdivision of Innovation Hub," explains Beckerling, adding that the partnership allows for a greenhouse space to implement and test the various technological solutions.
"This will help us in commercialising our products, like the manufacturing and distribution side of things. The other side, which we're really focused on, is research and development, which allows us to implement our technology, test it rigorously and make sure it's optimised."
The cultivation technology developed by Beckerling and van Wyk centres on automated lighting systems, closed-loop hydroponics, and specialised organic fertiliser.
Lighting is the primary element in this high-tech cultivation equation. The system uses LED grow lights – consuming less energy than the industry standard High-Pressure Sodium (HPS) and Metal Halide (MH) fixtures – which are finely tuned to the photobiology of the cannabis plants.
"Every plant has a specific light energy requirement or daily light integral… and it's about the right amount of photons that a plant needs per day at specific wavelengths of radiation," says Beckerling.
The lighting system is enhanced through AI algorithms, which adjust the required intensity and exposure according to the plant's cultivation environment. This includes measuring how far the lights are from the plant's canopy and the grow room's carbon dioxide levels, which optimises photosynthesis.
"Lighting is the most important and the most poorly understood part of cultivation and underpins the failure or success of your cultivation scheme because it's the biggest operational expenditure," adds Beckerling.
It's estimated that the AI-driven LED lighting system can save R25 million per hectare in electricity costs over five years compared to the industry standard HID fixtures.
In addition to increasing the yields and quality of cannabis crops, the smart cultivation scheme focuses on reducing costs and saving water – a scarce resource in South Africa – through a recycled, closed-loop system.
Like the plant's individual daily light integral and its relation to the environment, cannabis requires different nutrients throughout the varying stages of its development. To achieve optimal growth, Beckerling and van Wyk are in the process of developing a cannabis-specific hydroponic nutrient which they are planning to register as a type 2 organic fertiliser.
And while the engineering students can confirm that their cultivation system saves both money and resources, Beckerling is hesitant to confirm dramatic increases in the plant's potency until further tests are completed.
"Looking at things like potency, increased terpene profiles and concentrations… we haven't sent it to any labs," explains Beckerling. "We'd still need to complete a side-by-side study.
"We pride ourselves on being transparent and not promising things we can't deliver or verify. We try and optimise cultivation as an engineering problem to make sure that what we do results in the healthiest, strongest plants."
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