Growing the Future of Urban Farming with High-Tech Lighting

Achievement date: 

An initiative in advanced urban farming developed by researchers with the Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications (LESA) Engineering Research Center (ERC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Cornell University has received a prestigious $2.4M grant from the federal Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS). This initiative focuses applied plant growth research on water use efficiency and nutritional value optimization using engineered solutions for vertical farming. LESA is an interdisciplinary, multi-university NSF-funded ERC headquartered at RPI dedicated to developing “Lighting Systems that See and ThinkTM”. INFEWS is a collaboration of NSF and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).


Controlled environment agriculture (CEA), such as greenhouses or plant factories, may provide an alternative to conventional systems of field-based production and long-distance transportation to supply metropolitan areas with locally-grown vegetables. Potential benefits of metro CEA include decreased transportation of the food, reduced water use compared with field-based production, economic growth, and new jobs and workforce development. However, comprehensive information is lacking on the profitability of alternative CEA production technologies, the characteristics of the work force required for those production systems, the energy and water requirements under different external conditions, and the scale of CEA production compared with conventional field production. LESA has built a substantial profile in engineered lighting solutions for fundamental and applied research on lighting and plant growth. The Center and Cornell are using a systems modeling approach to compare the economics and environmental effects of CEA versus field vegetable supply chains. This research project also evaluates novel systems to optimize economic benefits as well as water, energy, and other resource use efficiencies in CEA vegetable production. It fosters industry-research networks and workforce development programs to facilitate the acceptance, adoption, and continued improvement of viable CEA systems in metropolitan areas.


LESA’s capabilities, solutions, and potential for high-tech horticultural lighting and the science of lighting for plant growth optimization have positioned the center as one of the best and broadest resources for horticulture lighting research. As a result, LESA has been able to forge partnerships with agricultural research powerhouses such as Cornell University, ultimately leading to their successful proposal to INFEWS. INFEWS is a collaboration between NSF and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to combine resources to identify and fund the most meritorious and highest-impact projects that support their respective missions, while eliminating duplication of effort and fostering collaboration between agencies and the investigators they support. The overarching goal of the INFEWS program is to improve system function and management, address system stress, increase resilience, and ensure sustainability by catalyzing well-integrated, convergent research to transform understanding of the FEW nexus as integrated social, engineering, physical, and natural systems.

Collectively, the LESA-Cornell project 1) Lays the groundwork for more sustainable FEW systems exemplified by CEA and vegetable production; 2) Provides knowledge and insights to enable informed decision making by policy makers, city planners, entrepreneurs, and current CEA operations; and 3) Develops education resources to train an appropriate workforce for a growing CEA industry.