Academics, Campus wide, College of Science and Mathematics

Aeroponics: what’s growing on here?

By Andrew Boyles | February 25, 2020

There is a new class at Charleston Southern that is not offered at many other universities in the state. It pertains to the mysterious purple lights in the Science Building, and you will never guess what it is.

CSU is offering aeroponics in the spring semester headed by Dr. Thomas Gurley, an adjunct professor.

Aeroponic agriculture is a technique by which plants are grown without soil, eliminating the use of pesticides and threats of fungi, viruses and bacteria. In aeroponics, the plant and its roots are suspended in the air using towers, and they receive their nutrition via a modified irrigation system. It also uses LED lights to receive its sunlight, which explains the purple lights in the Science Building.

Gurley stated that he has been conducting aeroponic activities for four semesters at CSU.

Gurley said that in 2016, he moved to South Carolina from Ohio and realized that he could not grow tomatoes the same in Ohio as he did here. He did some research and realized that aeroponics would be the best fit for him, so he grew watermelons, peas, potatoes and tomatoes all from his front porch.

“During my research, I realized that there were no books about aeroponics, so I wrote one!” Gurley said. The book is called Aeroponics: Growing Vertical, and is scheduled for release in May.

He said that in September of 2018, he was given the opportunity to work at CSU as an adjunct professor so that he may continue his studies as well as teach a few classes. He was assigned two students to work with on aeroponics.

It was not an official class at the time; it was simply an independent study run by Gurley and his two protégées. Gurley said the number dropped to one over the summer break, but in this current spring semester, he has a class of six students. He also said that his remaining protégée is currently conducting an independent study of aeroponics.

Gurley also stated that this new technique could revolutionize agriculture. “It uses 90% less water. No soil, no pesticides, no weeds; everything is controlled environment agriculture, or CEA.” The plants can grow aeroponically indoors with LED lights or outdoors in a greenhouse. “We control the weather,” he said.

There are downsides to this type of agriculture, however. Gurley said that aeroponics requires electricity for the pumps and lights, constant monitoring of the plants, and high buy in costs to acquire the equipment used for aeroponics.

Gurley stated that aeroponics is primarily geared toward home use, but there are a few companies who have embraced aeroponics and implemented it on a business level. Tiger Corner Farms, for example, is an innovative farm from Charleston who was featured on the CBS show “The Henry Ford Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca.” According to CBS, Tiger Corner Farms is an eco-friendly business that uses aeroponic technology in recycled shipping crates to produce their crops for several of the grocery stores of the Lowcountry.

“I believe Dr. Gurley is very educated on this subject,” Torii Johnson said.

Hailey Spencer, a senior, said, “It is a privilege to take his class and learn from him during my final semester here at CSU.”

“Dr. Gurley is a great professor who takes his time making sure that you understand every topic about aeroponics,” Brianna Thomas said, “along with assisting you with any other questions you may have regarding potential career possibilities or even any other questions you may have.”

Regarding the class, the students expressed their fascination with the new study.

“I took aeroponics as a biology elective, and it was something I had never heard of before,” Johnson said, “Being able to grow plants and produce them with minimal resources is possible, and it’s something that we will be using more in our near future.”

“I was intrigued at the science behind growing plants without the use of soil,” Spencer said. She enjoyed building her first experiment, and she has learned about the benefits of aeroponics in contrast to the traditional growing of crops.

“Aeroponics is interesting because it’s something I didn’t know very much about initially, but as we started to plant with our towers, I have learned a lot more.” Thomas said.

The students said that have grown very fond of their towers. Instead of numbering the towers that the plants are grown in, Gurley suggested to the students that they name the towers to clarify the process. The students enjoyed the idea, and they claim that each tower “has its own personality.”

Two of the students said that they were interested in pursuing a career in the world of aeroponics.

“I have already looked into several companies that specialize in aeroponics and hydroponics as careers after graduation,” Spencer said. “One of them is a company called Vertical Roots which supplies many grocery stores here in the Lowcountry with their produce.”

Thomas is also intrigued by aeroponics as a career option. “I would be interested to pursue it as a career because it’s a unique field where you can plant a variety of plants and get numerous different results.”

Andrew Boyles is a student contributor for Marketing & Communication and is a senior majoring in communication studies.

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