Two engineers came up with a unique project for their Master’s course in Renewable Energy Engineering and Management at the TERI School of Advanced Studies, Delhi. Souryadeep Basak, an electrical engineer from Kolkata, and Lavkesh Balchandani, a mechanical engineer from Indore, developed a solar-powered hydroponic fodder unit that can generate 50 kgs of fodder per day. Their hydroponic fodder unit could cost farmers approximately Rs 15,000, including solar panels, control systems and other inputs.
Running on a DC (direct current) system, without an inverter, the unit directly employs solar power without rising costs for converting DC energy to AC (alternating current). Requiring 95% less water than traditional fodder production, this unit takes just eight days from seed-to-feed with zero down-time owing to the soilless nature of this enterprise.
Moreover, in a given month, this unit needs just 0.5 units of electricity, utilising energy-efficient cooling strategies.
To facilitate the process of automation, the fodder unit employs a microcontroller that interfaces with a network of actuators and sensors. When temperatures spike beyond a certain pre-decided point set by the farmer, the unit’s smart cooling system powers the installed sprinklers and fans.
They claim that the system smartly leverages simulation and passive solar strategies to establish a standard design applicable to all the five major climatic zones of India and in accordance with the National Building Code.
Building The ‘Rack-Like Structure’
Souryadeep left behind a well-paying job at a consulting and accounting giant, while Lavkesh switched engineering streams to pursue a course in renewable energy. Despite coming from different backgrounds and cities, they shared a common desire to address the problems of climate change and unsustainable farming practices.
“We first conceived this idea sometime in April 2020 during our second semester at TERI. We had enrolled into the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge, a global, multi-disciplinary competition that empowers teams of university students to help accelerate clean energy access funded by UK aid and the IKEA Foundation. We won the bronze medal in the Grand Final. At the initial stage, the idea was quite different. It began as an idea for growing exoctic vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers in a rural setting because we thought these are high value crops and rural residents would directly benefit a lot. But we were chastened by our mentors for not factoring in the supply chain challenges involved in distributing such produce. That’s why we settled on fodder, a key component where centres of production and consumption coincide in rural areas,” says Souryadeep, speaking to The Better India.
In other words, it started off exclusively as a hydroponic farming project. This idea of a hydroponic fodder unit only crystallised sometime in November and December 2020.
“Before even conceptualising this system, however, we were working on different lighting solutions for hydroponics. We did some research and development, optimised lighting schedules, spectrums and colours that would be most conducive for growth. That process took place sometime between July and August 2020. After we perfected the lighting schedule, we grew a batch of lettuce. This was done to understand the efficacy of hydroponics. We remember growing lettuce throughout the Delhi winters, which are harsh. Last year, there were a lot of hailstorms as well. I had set up the hydroponics unit on the rooftop of my flat. That was a test to see whether our system could withstand difficult climatic conditions,” he notes.
They set up a working prototype after the first wave of the pandemic and the final fodder unit, which both of them developed, was completed just when the second wave of COVID-19 hit India. One square metre on the unit is enough to feed two cattle daily. On an average, each of these cattle require 5 to 6 kg of green fodder, depending on their respective weights. In other words, about 12 kgs of feed comes from 1 square metre, claims Souryadeep.
He adds, “It’s a rack-like structure. Maize has a crop cycle of eight days, which means from seed-to-feed, you only need eight days. The fodder unit has eight racks/levels. On day one, we plant only on Level One and on the second day you plant on Level Two and so on. On Day eight, once you’ve planted the top shelf, your bottom shelf is ready for harvest. This ensures a continuous supply of fodder. According to my calculations, if you want a unit which generates 50 kg of fodder per day for 10 units of cattle, it will come around Rs 15,000 which includes your solar panels, control systems and other input costs.”
A Three-Pronged Approach
Souryadeep and Lavkesh had a controlled experiment planned for their hydroponic fodder unit in a couple of villages across the Sunderbans in West Bengal but the pandemic proved to be a dampener. However, they are very keen on working with the farmers since real-time testing on the ground would lend more credibility to the idea.
“We’re still in an R&D stage. Having said that, this doesn’t mean our claims are unjustified. Our confidence in this unit is bolstered because the ideas executed here have backing in scientific literature set in Sub-Saharan countries, the Middle East and Indian settings as well. There is a lot of great research happening in hydroponics fodder. We leaned on scientific literature and what evidence previous researchers have published,” notes Souryadeep.
But the hydroponic fodder unit is not merely the end goal for these innovators. It’s part of their three-stage modular solution based on the principle of hydroponics that they believe can empower rural communities engaged in farming.
First Stage: Focus will be on the fodder unit. They’re not taking a profit-oriented approach. It’s there to maximally utilise the resources available to rural farmers and give them a base income by taking fodder generated by the unit, raising the productivity of their livestock and economising benefits.
After the farmer saturates local demand for green fodder, what they can do is supply fodder to different parts of India to reduce the country’s 284 million tonnes shortage in green fodder, according to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.
Second Stage: To build a mushroom cultivation unit, which employs biomass (straw, hay) that is now unutilised as a consequence of the fodder unit.
“Depending on the time of year, different mushrooms may be successfully sprouted within smart grow units. One could grow medical and gourmet mushrooms. To ensure a greater shelf life they could be sun-dried, which reduces pressure on the supply chain. Moreover, these items have a high value market. Once this process generates enough income, the farmer can proceed towards the classical greenhouse approach to hydroponics,” notes Souryadeep.
Third Stage: The third stage is a greenhouse for exotic vegetables, herbs, flowers and other horticultural produce that require an established supply chain.
“These three stages allow us to approach villages that don’t have access to markets or electricity. Once this hydroponic fodder unit is set up in the middle of nowhere, you can empower the entire village through this model, which can become a hub for business activity, attract investors and develop communities around them as well,” Souryadeep says.
As of today, various private ventures have reached out to develop and access their fodder unit. Meanwhile, the innovators are also trying to reach other private investors to further scale up this project.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)