Thomas Hausmaninger wants to develop a breathalyser for plants

Large scale indoor farming has the potential to become the next big thing in food production. For this, we need to better understand plants and the conditions in which they can thrive. Thomas Hausmaninger from the National Metrology Institute of Finland, VTT MIKES is determined to create a way to know exactly what plants need.


You want to understand the needs of plants better. Why is this important?

With the threat of global warming and growing world population, land and water usage needs to be better managed for food production. Indoor farms can address these challenges by producing food with maximum efficiency and with 90 percent less water than outdoor farms. Indoor farms allow us to produce food close to the consumer, for instance in cities, where already half of the world population lives. However, if such farms are developed on a large scale, full automation is crucial. To support this automation we need to understand the best growing environments for the plants and be able to adjust the conditions when necessary. A plant breathalyser could help us collect the biological signals emitted by the plants, provide feedback on the control parameters, and thus ensure that the automated system responds to the signals in real time. 

What made you interested in this particular idea?

I have colleagues who do basic research in plant science and technology. I want to bring these different research together and apply them to provide more understanding of indoor farming. The proposal is highly multidisciplinary, combining expertise in sensing technology, data analysis, and biology. My aim is to take a leap and bring this type of research from the laboratory into the real world.

What made you apply for Research Pitching Competition?

I have never pitched before, I have only spoken at conferences. I am very interested in the coaching that all of us finalists will get and I believe this will be an interesting personal experience. It is a nice challenge to work out an idea and see what the reaction to that idea is through pitching. 

If you were to win the €100K Skolar Award, what could you do?

With the €100K I could spend time to do the necessary measurements. This would mean setting up the instruments, analysing the data, going to greenhouses and running field tests. 

Thomas’ wild idea: 

My idea is to develop a breath analyser for plants, in order to better understand the needs of plants and provide an ideal growing environment and ultimately enhance food production. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and, emit oxygen together with other types of volatiles compounds. The composition of these gases carries information about the metabolism of the plants. Our idea is to develop a new type of sensing technology to analyse the air around the plants, i.e. a plant breath analyser, and, using advanced data analysis such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, extract information about the needs and wellbeing of the plants. For instance, factors such as water and nutrients usage, amount and spectrum of light, or early detection of pest invasion can be monitored in real-time and in a non-invasive way. Eventually this information can be used to optimise the food production process, in particular in fully controlled environment such as vertical farms, and greenhouses.

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