A team of Cal Poly mechanical engineering students won first place recently in the Setty Family Foundation’s 2021 Applied Engineering Challenge after designing an indoor gardening unit that could feed a family of four in San Luis Obispo.
The students – Adam Bessey, Matthew Malonzo and Ryan Salazar – brainstormed the Poly Planter Pod for their senior project with the challenge in mind. One of four student design contests held annually by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the challenge is intended to encourage students to find engineering solutions for designing self-sustaining, interconnected communities.
“The outline criteria for the overall design project was very vague and open to interpretation,” Salazar said, “which allowed our team a lot of freedom for our designs but required us to make design choices based purely on our own research and engineering intuition instead of a buyer or employer’s demands.”
The team’s design employs two storage containers – each 8-by-ten feet – and includes adjustable solar panels on the top. The walls are fully insulated, and the floor has a central drain bored through it, with a pipe guiding water out to the side of the pod, where it can be safely disposed. An electric dock runs around the pod halfway up the wall, allowing the lights and pumps to plug in without dangling electric cables.
The unit would employ hydroponics – a type of horticulture that entails growing plants without soil by using mineral nutrient solutions and aqueous solvent.
Without the need for soil, less space is required, and there would be no need for pesticides, making it more sustainable.
“Growing vegetables at home reduces the carbon footprint by eliminating the need to transport and refrigerate vegetables,” said Steffen Peuker, the faculty advisor for the project. “The Poly Planter Pod design also reduces the water consumption significantly by using hydroponic growing systems. Growing vegetables right at home can also help to maintain a healthy diet. The modular design of the shipping container used for the Poly Planter Pods would allow people to bring these pods to regions in the world where fresh vegetables are needed or can’t be grown as a result of the local climate.”
The unit can also be customized.
“The sturdy container and sealed interior allow for deployment in almost any terrain or weather, while the relatively low resources and maintenance required makes it very easy for even the most inexperienced gardeners,” Salazar said.
The Poly Planter Pod system is capable of growing 1,500 pounds of fruits and vegetables a year, including strawberries, blueberries, broccoli, lettuce, carrots, potatoes and more.
“The modular design combined with a water efficient hydroponic growing system to supply a family with a years-worth of vegetables and fruits is very impressive,” Peuker said. “Incorporating state-of-the art lighting, an HVAC system with economizer and solar panels while optimizing the energy footprint of the Poly Planter Pods is a real engineering feat.”
The Cal Poly team, which was awarded $5,000, finished ahead of teams from Montana State University, Bandung Institute of Technology and Maharaja Agrasen Institute of Technology.