Lettuces growing in the Plant Factory
Plant Factory Cornwall is harnessing developments in lighting technology to grow salad and medicinal crops in multi-tier, hydroponic systems under super-smart LED lights.
The research could herald a huge step forward in both multi-tier production (‘vertical farming’) and hydroponics, because one of the limiting factors has always been the cost of providing artificial light and a lack of understanding of how best to use it efficiently.
The research, led by Professor Mick Fuller of University of Plymouth School of Biological and Marine Sciences, is focusing on prototyping automated, programmable LED lights that could provide ‘light recipes’ to deliver the necessary requirements for plants during their differing growth stages, with pinpoint precision. It will develop, test and modify arrays of such lighting, potentially offering almost infinite control. By tailoring the light’s wavelength to the ‘action spectrum’ of the species at different points in its development, it will boost the plant’s photosynthetic processes, ensuring it absorbs and uses the maximum amount possible for physiological activity, rather than it going to waste.
Growing plants commercially in entirely artificially-lit environments hasn’t made ‘energetic’ sense up until now, but the recent use of high-energy LEDs has provided new insights into how specific light wavelengths can trigger the optimal expression of their growth and development. The work could result in extended growing seasons for crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers, and an increase in production of crops within the UK, with a decreasing reliance on imports.

The power of solar

One of the main novel concepts of the research is the use of solar power as an energy supply for the plant factory unit. 

We focus specifically on prototyping lights delivering a colour spectrum that is matched to the photosynthetic and developmental needs of plants and developing the control systems and software that manages the lights throughout the growing cycle of plants. 

The project will develop, test and modify the lights in a purpose built test facility in order to produce the right LED lighting solution that meets the technical and commercial needs of growers and propagators.

Solar panels on the plant factory roof
Image of a plant in the Plant Factory

A major new horticulture supply model

By producing a standardised controlled LED light system that can be readily and easily adapted for the growing of specific crops we hope to facilitate the development of a major new horticulture supply model in the market. 

The effect of specific LED lighting spectra on the active ingredients of some pharmaceutical herbs and medicinal plants will also be investigated, opening up the opportunity to extend the technology to other aspects of horticultural growing, thus developing a new high-quality low-carbon supply chain for the sector.

Pharmaceuticals and the Plant Factory

Using the horticultural supply model, we can grow pharmaceutical and medicinal plant species under laboratory growth controlled conditions.

The team are investigating bio-active compounds derived from a range of pharmaceutical and medicinal plants against clinical benefit in a range of cancer cell line models. 

Growth conditions will be adapted to optimise maximal production of important bioactive compounds and further testing for use as novel therapeutics.

multi pipette research of cancer stem cells

Meet the Plant Factory Team

Professor Mick Fuller (BSc PhD FRSB MDeTao; Professor of Plant Physiology; Chair of the UK Controlled Environment Users’ Group (UKCEUG))
Professor Fuller is a world leading scientist in the field of plant physiology with extensive knowledge of abiotic stress physiology, agronomy and plant development. He is the PI of the Agri-Tech Cornwall Plant Factory project at the University of Plymouth. 
Professor Mick Fuller - Head of the Graduate School

Dr Lynn McCallum 

(Associate Professor of Haematology)

Dr McCallum's key interests are in signalling mechanisms underlying malignancy and identification of novel targets and treatments for therapeutic development. Her research involves screening pharmacutical plant extracts for therapeutic use to treat Mantle Cell Lymphoma, an aggressive disorder with very poor survival rates of less than five years. 

Find out more about Dr Lynn McCallum's work

Lynn McCallum - Plant Factory

Dr Hail Rihan 

(PhD-MRSB-AHEA Plant Biotechnology, Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth, Visiting Professor at the University of Jeddah)

Dr Rihan is in charge of managing and day to day running of the research conducted at the Plant Factory facility at the University of Plymouth. He is also in charge of developing business assists with commercial companies working with the Plant Factory project.

Find out more about Dr Hail Rihan's work

Dr Hail Rihan in the Plant Factory

Marwa Jbara 

(BSc Pharmacy – Research Assistant for the Plant Factory project)

Marwa's primary project focus is on assessing plant derivatives extracted from plants grown or conditioned in the plant factory that could be beneficial for mantle cell lymphoma suppression and control. The aim is to investigate the chemical components derived from pharmaceutical plants with the potential to be developed for clinical use.

Marwa Jbara - Plant Factory research assistant

Daniel Samson 

(MSc Sustainable Environmental Management) 

Daniel is currently studying Sustainable Environmental Management, and is undertaking his dissertation project in the plant factory. He is studying the effects of light quality on the growth of lettuce in order to find its most efficient growing conditions. He is also studying Madagascar periwinkle, a plant widely used for medicinal purposes in the treatment of diabetes, and also in anti-cancer drugs. His aim is to find the optimal conditions for the extraction of the highest yield of Madagascar periwinkle's valuable alkaloids, which are the secret to its medicinal properties.

Daniel Samson -  Plant Factory research student

Mohammed Aldarkazali

(Research Masters Student)

Mohammed's main project focus is on the effect of LED lighting spectrum on the growth and development of basil. The project aims to use lighting regimes to improve the yield and quality of essential oils from the basil plant. 

Mohammed Aldarkazali - Plant Factory research student
George Journeaux - Plant Factory
George Journeaux (MEng Electrical and Electronic Engineering) - Working on designing and building LED lighting systems
Liam Grazier - Plant Factory
Liam Grazier (MEng Robotics) - Working on designing and building smart visual systems
Dan Nonoo - Plant Factory
Dan Nonoo (MEng Electrical and Electronic Engineering) - Working on building control systems
Ben Parkes - Plant Factory
Ben Parkes (MEng Electrical and Electronic Engineering) - Working on modular dosing systems
Close up of a plant in the Plant Factory with LEDs
A plant in the Plant Factory
A shelf of plants in the Plant factory

Plant Factory Cornwall and the University of Jeddah

As it stands, the Middle East is less than 20 per cent self-sufficient in food production. So any technology that allows us to help improve that would be beneficial.

Scientists from the University of Jeddah attended the Plant Factory Launch, and are now exploring ways to replicate the project in Saudi Arabia.

Find out more about the collaboration
Professor Omar Almaghrabi talks in the Plant Factory with Post Doctoral Researcher Dr Hail Rihan
Plant Factory with LED lights

European Regional Development Fund (ERDF)

The University of Plymouth is proud to be supported by the European Regional Development Fund. As one stream of funding under the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) Growth Programme 2014–2020, the ERDF focuses on smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
The main priorities involve contributions to research and innovation, supporting and promoting small and medium size enterprises (SMEs), and the creation of a low carbon economy.
European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) logo