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The Green Promise of Vertical Farms

Indoor farms run by AI and lit by LEDs can be more efficient than field agriculture, but can they significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

11 min read
Staff looking at a wall of basil.

Wall of Plenty: A wall of basil is bathed in light from LED tubes, which are optimized for this particular crop by Plenty's proprietary machine-learning algorithms.

Photo: Plenty Unlimited

I emerge from the Tokyo Monorail station on Shōwajima, a small island in Tokyo Bay that's nestled between downtown Tokyo and Haneda Airport. Disoriented and dodging cargo trucks exiting a busy overpass, I duck under a bridge and consult the map on my phone, which leads me deeper into a warren of warehouses. I eventually find Espec Mic Corp.'s VegetaFarm, in a dilapidated 1960s office building tucked between a printing plant and a beer distributor. Stepping inside the glass-walled lobby on the second floor, I see racks upon racks of leafy green lettuce and kale growing in hydroponic solutions of water and a precisely calibrated mix of nutrients. Energy-efficient LEDs emit a pinkish light within a spectral range of 400 to 700 nanometers, the sweet spot for photosynthesis.

I'm here to find out how plant factories, called vertical or indoor farms in Western countries, can help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional field agriculture. According to the World Bank, 48.6 million square kilometers of land were farmed worldwide in 2015. Collectively, agriculture, forestry, and other land uses contributed 21 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, per a 2017 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, mostly through releases of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.

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Inside the Universe Machine: The Webb Space Telescope’s Trailblazing Optics

As NASA’s newest Big Science project opens its eyes, IEEESpectrum reflects on JWST’s groundbreaking engineering

9 min read
Fourteen technicians in clean-room suits guide the hoisting of a honeycombed, hexagon-mirrored telescope inside a giant cleanroom construction space

The James Webb Space Telescope’s 18-segment gold mirror enables it to see a penny 40 kilometers away, or a football 550 kilometers away.

NASA/Desiree Stover

“Build something that will absolutely, positively work.” This was the mandate from NASA for designing and building the James Webb Space Telescope—at 6.5 meters wide the largest space telescope in history. Last December, JWST launched famously and successfully to its observing station out beyond the moon. And now according to NASA, as soon as next week, the JWST will at long last begin releasing scientific images and data.

Mark Kahan, on JWST’s product integrity team, recalls NASA’s engineering challenge as a call to arms for a worldwide team of thousands that set out to create one of the most ambitious scientific instruments in human history. Kahan—chief electro-optical systems engineer at Mountain View, Calif.–based Synopsys—and many others in JWST’s “pit crew” (as he calls the team) drew hard lessons from three decades ago, having helped repair another world-class space telescope with a debilitating case of flawed optics. Of course the Hubble Space Telescope is in low Earth orbit, and so a special space-shuttle mission to install corrective optics ( as happened in 1993) was entirely possible.

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This Startup Is Using AI to Help Keep Store Shelves Stocked

Wisy’s platform eases supply-chain issues by tracking inventory

4 min read
Phone screen with Wisy platform on black background

Store employees take a picture of a product on display using Wisy's platform, and the AI records information based on the photo.

Wisy Platforms

Shoppers are seeing more and more empty shelves, as stores around the world struggle to keep products stocked. The situation is the result of supply-chain issues caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. The product-unavailability rate increased from 5 percent to 15 percent during the past three years, according to the Consumer Brands Association.

To make it easier for stores to track inventory, startup Wisy developed an AI platform that uses image recognition to detect which products are out of stock or running low, as well as those that are available but haven’t yet been put on display.

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A Multiphysics Approach to Designing Fuel Cells for Electric Vehicles

White paper on fuel cell modeling and simulation

1 min read
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Comsol

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) often reach higher energy density and exhibit greater efficiency than battery EVs; however, they also have high manufacturing costs, limited service life, and relatively low power density.

Modeling and simulation can improve fuel cell design and optimize EV performance. Learn more in this white paper.