Syngenta's new greenhouse brings climates of the world to RTP

dranii@newsobserver.comMay 17, 2013 

— Visitors to Syngenta’s new high-tech greenhouse check their shadows at the door.

The virtually shadowless environment is a byproduct of the advances at the agribusiness giant’s new $72 million, 136,000-square-foot Advanced Crop Lab, which the company touts as a leap forward in greenhouses.

High-tech glass specially made for Syngenta in The Netherlands disperses light in all directions. Combine that with the highly reflective stark white floors in the corridors outside the 22 greenhouse rooms, and shadows nearly disappear. The glowing result is other-worldly.

It’s all part of the company’s efforts to maximize the region’s sunlight, supplementing it with artificial lighting as needed, to simulate the growing conditions of any climate in the world. It can be Nebraska in one room, Brazil in the next.

“I’ve been asked: ‘Why $72 million. Why is it such an expensive greenhouse?’ ” said Bill Hlavac, head of site operations for Syngenta. “What we have done here, all the technological components that comprise this facility may exist in other places, but there is no place where they all come together the way we have put them together.”

Improved control of the greenhouse climate provides Syngenta scientists with information they can use in developing the next generation of crops. Syngenta ranks No. 3 in seed sales behind Monsanto and Dupont. It’s also a major producer of crop-protection products such as insecticides and herbicides.

Syngenta’s 50-acre campus in RTP, which employs 400 workers, is the global headquarters for its biotechnology research. In recent years the company has launched a new breed of corn that resists the destructive corn rootworm beetle and another designed to withstand drought – both of which had RTP roots.

Although the first seeds were planted in the new greenhouses in late February, Friday’s grand opening is expected to attract Gov. Pat McCrory, Sen. Kay Hagan and other dignitaries.

The Triangle has emerged as a hub for agribusiness, with BASF, Bayer CropScience and Monsanto also having a major presence here.

“We’re sort of at the dawn of the next generation of agricultural technologies, and they’re all going to come from RTP,” said Syngenta spokesman Steven Goldsmith.

Eschewing the traditional technology for cooling greenhouses – evaporative cooling, which cools air via the evaporation of water – Syngenta’s new greenhouses, which altogether encompass an acre, rely totally on air-conditioning supplied by a massive installation of equipment in the facility’s basement.

Evaporative cooling “works pretty well most of the time” but falters when the relative humidity is high, Hlavac said. “With 100 percent air-conditioning, we can control (the temperature) completely.”

Then there’s the “fertigation” system. That’s a combination of nutrients and irrigation water that is controlled row by row in each greenhouse unit.

“We’ve got 10 rows in here,” Hlavac said of one of the units. “Each one can have its own recipe.”

If Syngenta’s scientists need to step up their control of the environment another notch, they can utilize the Crop Lab’s more than a dozen completely enclosed growth chambers that are lined with mirrored walls – used for their reflective properties. The chambers also can measure the gases the plants emit.

“If you are going to detect really small changes in transpiration – whether a plant is sweating – it’s very difficult to do that,” Hlavac said. “The more tightly you control the environment, the easier it is to detect those changes.”

Some of the greenhouses are used to grow “stock plants,” the raw materials used by the scientists for engineering new breeds.

“The scientists require a lot of material every single week to do their work,” Hlavac said. “In the past, we struggled to meet their needs. That is clearly not going to be a problem here.”

Early indications are that the greenhouses’ ability to create an optimum growing environment will enable four growing cycles a year, rather than the three cycles produced at the company’s last-generation greenhouses nearby. That’s a one-third improvement in efficiency that enables the company to grow more in less space.

As far as keeping all those windows clean, the greenhouse has that covered.

A robot that’s bigger than a pickup truck automatically traverses the peaked roofs once a week, cleaning the giant panes of glass as it goes.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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