Climate Resilient Sustainable Food Production: Controlled Environment Hydroponic Agriculture with Novel Wastewater Treatment & Reuse


Program overview

This project is funded by NSF Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) program. Many cutting-edge research questions require international collaboration to achieve important advances. They also require insights from diverse disciplines to address the full complexity of the research, as well as active participation of stakeholders outside of academia to ensure research findings connect to real-world solutions to societal challenges related to climate change and/or clean energy. Climate change and clean energy research teams that incorporate some of these characteristics are increasingly common, but many have not had the opportunity to fully integrate all elements into their research agenda. This PIRE program invites PIs to develop these partnerships to exploit their full potential in the future.

Project summary

Increasingly frequent regional droughts induced by climate change have raised concerns about food security. Given the high land, water, energy, and carbon footprints of traditional open field crop cultivation, controlled environment agriculture (CEA) using greenhouses or modular containers is an evolving practice. In regions with freshwater scarcity, non-traditional water sources such as reclaimed wastewater are being considered for irrigation; however, there are concerns about the unit costs and energy requirements of wastewater treatment as well as potential microbial and chemical risks to consumers. We propose a sustainable agriculture platform with provision of high-quality irrigation water containing plant nutrients delivered at near-zero net energy consumption via a novel wastewater reclamation scheme that is integrated with hydroponic (soil-less) CEA crop cultivation. In our PIRE project, Clemson University (CU) with recognized expertise in agricultural sciences and environmental engineering is partnering with two universities in the Republic of Korea: Gyeonsang National University (GNU) and Korea Universty (KU), internationally recognized in agricultural sciences and environmental engineering, respectively.

The proposed project will integrate an emerging low-cost/-energy municipal wastewater reclamation technology capable of delivering high-quality irrigation water containing plant nutrients (fertilizers) with a decentralized hydroponic CEA platform for crop cultivation that addresses food safety and microbial risk minimization. This innovative approach will foster both food security and food safety in a time of increasing unpredictability due to pandemics, more frequent natural disasters, food supply shortages, and economic instability. A range of stakeholders (farmers/growers, consumers, regulators) will be engaged to further acceptance of reclaimed wastewater irrigation and hydroponic cultivation of food crops.