AI image of cannabis aeroponic root system

Aeroponics 101: The Fundamentals

by | Mar 3, 2024

AI image of cannabis aeroponic root system

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

Aeroponics, a soilless cultivation technique, suspends plant roots in the air, nourishing them through a nutrient-rich mist. This method, a subset of hydroponics, boasts increased oxygen exposure, enhancing plant growth and water efficiency. Aeroponics systems are ideal for including leafy greens, herbs, berries, and now cannabis cultivation.

Although it requires a highly technical design and has significant maintenance needs, an aeroponics system promises higher yields, space efficiency, and rapid growth. It’s undeniably an attractive option for the commercial cannabis sector.

Here, we dive into the world of aeroponics for cannabis, specifically from the commercial perspective. And yes, we’ve updated this article to include a list of current suppliers of aeroponics technology and solutions that service the cannabis sector.

What is Aeroponics? A Definition

“Aeroponics is a technique for cultivating plants in nutrient-rich mist surroundings devoid of soil. Aeroponics differs from the hydroponic system as the plant roots are not engrossed in fluid media, instead straight way absorb nutrients from the aerosol. When compared to soil-cultivated plants, these cultivation systems provide improved growth, yield, quality, and metabolite production.”

Organic Farming, Perspectives and Methods
Credit Aeriz, cannabis aeroponics root system
Credit: Aeriz

Simply put, aeroponic farming grows plants without soil, with the roots suspended in the air and irrigated through a nutrient-rich mist.

This technique, technically a subset of hydroponics, eliminates the need for a growing medium, allowing roots to dangle freely in the air, periodically sprayed with a nutrient solution. 

Aeroponics is known for its water efficiency and faster plant growth due to increased oxygen exposure. It is commonly used for growing leafy greens, herbs, strawberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers. But it’s also used at the frontier of cannabis cultivation science.

While aeroponics offers advantages like higher yields and space efficiency, these systems also require technical knowledge for setup and maintenance, regular disinfection of root chambers, and careful monitoring of nutrient levels. The system can be costly to set up but can significantly benefit plant growth and productivity.

A Brief History of Aeroponics

In the 1920s, aeroponics was first used for academic studies of root growth. Slowly, this evolved in the 1930s when researchers at the University of California began exploring the use of nutrient mist to grow plants. 

However, this complicated cultivation technology did not gain significant attention until the 1970s when indoor growing methods like hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics left the laboratory for recreational and commercial growing.

Later, in the 1990s, NASA played a role in advancing aeroponics by funding research into the technology. In 1997, NASA collaborated with ArgiHouse, a now-defunct manufacturer, to develop an aeroponic experiment, mainly focusing on its application in space.

These days, soil-less growing is a large part of indoor cultivation, from vegetables to berries to cannabis. According to Market Reports World Annual Report, the worldwide market for aeroponics was estimated to be worth $852.25 million. They projected it to grow at an annual compound growth rate (CAGR) of 15.88% over the forecast period, with expectations to reach $2063.84 million by 2027.

Today’s sector can roughly be divided into two distinct subsectors:

  • Aeroponics Kits: Designed for the at-home grower and designed as an all-in-one, simple system
  • Commercial and Industrial Aeroponics: Designed for commercial and industrial level cultivation; created at the facility level, incorporating many distinct growth technologies into a complex system 

How Does Aeroponics Actually Work?

Aeroponics is a cultivation technique that grows plants in an open-air or mist environment, eliminating the need for soil or a traditional aggregate medium. 

This system suspends plants in the air, allowing their roots to dangle freely. The root system is still contained within a dark container or reservoir, where there is an integrated system that sprays (or fogs) the roots periodically with a nutrient-rich solution. This entirely automated system ensures optimal water, oxygen, and nutrients delivery directly to the plant’s root system. 

What are the Advantages of Aeroponic Grow Systems?

Aeroponic cultivation offers numerous benefits, including:

  • Direct Nutrient Delivery: Nutrients are delivered directly to plant roots, promoting efficient absorption.
  • Energy Efficiency: Programmable technology conserves energy across the entire grow room.
  • Water Conservation: Closed-loop systems conserve water and reduce runoff.
  • Moisture Control: Better control over moisture levels enhances plant growth.
  • Higher Crop Density: Aeroponics allows for higher-density crops, optimizing output.
  • Reduced Labor Costs: Automation reduces labor requirements.
  • Controlled Environment: Aeroponics systems enables the production of higher-quality crops in a controlled setting.
  • Disease Prevention: It reduces the risk of disease and pest infestation in a controlled environment.
  • Oxygen Exposure: Roots are provided with better exposure to oxygen, promoting faster growth.
  • Space Efficiency: Scalable systems can range from commercial to apartment-sized gardens, maximizing space usage
  • Speed to harvest: With rapid growth, cultivators shave weeks off of each production schedule.

Specific Aeroponics Benefits for Cannabis Cultivation

All of the above advantages also apply to aeroponics in cannabis production. But it’s worth highlighting a few examples of what this can look like in practice for the commercial cultivator.

  • Short Veg Period: After cloning, plants can transition to flower after as little as one week of veg.
  • Higher THC, Higher Terps: Many growers report higher THC and terps “than the same cultivar grown in coco and rockwool.”
  • Rapid Nutrient Flush: Instead of a days-long process, it is possible to complete your end-of-flower nutrient flush within an hour.
  • Reduced Material Costs: With no substrate, there is absolutely no need to purchase, transport, store, and dispose of massive orders of soil, rockwool, or coco.
  • Lower Labor Costs: The system runs automatically via grow room software, which means no hand feeding is required. This translates to far fewer staff hours on menial tasks.

Avid Growing Systems, a company that makes modular aeroponic grow systems, claims that their facilities reduce the average grow cycle from 90 to just 60 days, allowing for an extra two harvests every year. 

According to a Coco Coir vs Aeroponics case study published by AEssence, their AEtrium system reduced labor costs by 75%. Alongside other operational efficiencies from savings in water and nutrients, a pound of flower costs just $137 to produce, down from $395 in their trial.

The potential operational cost savings are of particular note for the cannabis sector, where cultivators are trying to shave pennies from the costs per pound.

Aeroponics from a Head Grower Perspective

“We don’t have to upsize the pots or anything like that. That’s like a big labor step and material cost that we don’t have.”

ZacK Bigg, head grower at Aeriz
aeriz grow room,OCtober 2023
Just a small example of what Aeriz is producing with aeroponics.

If you need more convincing, Zack Bigg, the head grower at Aeriz, a national aeroponics cultivator, says it’s clearly a faster, more efficient approach.

As he explained, “It’s faster across the board, shorter veg times,” and in his experience, they “save at least two, potentially three weeks in veg, that we just don’t have to do.” Although slight differences exist between strains, Aeriz typically reaches harvest in just eight weeks.

He also confirms the rapid nutrient flush, which he says is essentially instant and can be applied whenever needed because there is no medium that needs to be cleared out.

However, from Biggs’ perspective, the most convincing argument for aeroponics grow systems in cannabis cultivation is the labor component. Just think about the usual transition in pot size, from seedling to flower. As he says, “We don’t have to upsize the pots or anything like that. That’s like a big labor step and material cost that we don’t have.” Plants start out in a little five-inch net pot, but that goes with them from when they are a baby to the end of flower.

What Are the Challenges of Aeroponic Cultivation?

Of course, it’s not all big buds and high THC levels. Aeroponics technology doesn’t come without its drawbacks. 

Let’s look at the biggest issue. Within an aeroponics facility, all plant life is entirely reliant on the consistent and automated delivery of water and nutrient spray. If anything goes wrong with electricity, software, or irrigation connections, it doesn’t take long for the plants in the system to die off. 

Aeroponics, at least at the commercial scale, also requires significant capital investment. It’s not just an irrigation system. It’s an entire facility’s worth of cutting-edge equipment, usually custom-built and designed for each project.

Facilities using aeroponics can run into the tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars (crop and facility size dependant). Of course, there are substantial operational cost benefits to take into account that can ensure long-term financial viability — but the upfront lift is notable.

Aeroponics Making Cannabis More Sustainable

One of the major selling points for aeroponics is its sustainability. This is especially true when applied to cannabis, an industry known for its less-than-eco-friendly production habits,

In an industry that has a reputation for being not so sustainable, aeroponic systems are a highly effective solution for reducing cannabis growers’ carbon footprints.

Aeroponic systems use between 90% to 98% less water than traditional cannabis cultivation methods since the water is recycled back into the system. They also take up far less space and produce higher yields, making less of an impact on the surrounding environment.

California-based AEssenceGrows, a leading provider of commercial aeroponics solutions, has found that their technology will “use 10% of the water, 30% of the nutrients, no soil, no pesticides, and eliminates many duplicate manual tasks further increasing yield efficiency and profit when compared to soil.” 

This is just one example of how aeroponic systems are much more sustainable — both environmentally and economically. Utilizing aeroponics is clearly a win-win-win solution for producers, consumers, and the environment as a whole.

What Can You Grow with Aeroponic Grow Systems?

Clearly, you can grow cannabis with aeroponics tactics. But, again, this is a technology pioneered among other crop sectors. 

lettuce grown aeroponically
Cannabis isn’t the only aeroponic crop. Veggies, lettuce, and berries are also commonly produced in aeroponic systems

Leafy Greens and Vegetables

  • Lettuce and other leafy greens
  • Cucumbers
  • Peppers
  • Herbs

Flowers

  • Orchids
  • Roses
  • Anthuriums
  • Carnations

Fruit

  • Tomatoes
  • Melons
  • Strawberries

Aeroponics vs. Hydroponics: What’s the difference?

HydroponicsAeroponics
Growing MediumUses a water solution or inert growing medium (e.g., rockwool, clay pellets)Roots are suspended in air and misted with nutrient solution
Water UsageMore water usage compared to aeroponics, but still efficient compared with traditional systems Significantly less water usage due to misting and recirculation, up to 90 to 98% savings
Nutrient DeliveryNutrient solution is delivered directly to the roots in a liquid formNutrient solution is misted directly onto the roots in a fine spray
Oxygen ExposureLess than aeroponics, but can be optimized with certain systemsHigh, due to roots being exposed to air
Growth RateFaster than soil-based growing but generally slower than aeroponicsHigher than both soil-based and hydroponic systems
Setup CostCan be lower or higher depending on the system complexityGenerally higher due to the complexity of misting systems
MaintenanceRequires monitoring of water pH and nutrient levels, cleaning of the systemRequires precise control of misting frequency and nutrient concentration
Space EfficiencyMore efficient than traditional soil-based farming but less than aeroponicsHighly efficient use of space, suitable for vertical farming

Aeroponics Suppliers for the Cannabis Industry

Despite the countless advantages for yield, potency, and production schedule, aeroponics is still a relatively niche cultivation tactic — especially at the commercial scale. This means there are realistically only a few major suppliers serving the space.

Here is a round-up of the current major suppliers for commercial aeroponics technology servicing the cannabis sector.

CleanGreens

Location: Switzerland

Product Highlight:

  • GREENOVA
  • GURU App

GREENOVA, patented by CleanGreens Solutions, is a mobile aeroponics system designed to offer a highly automated, labor-minimal, and cost-effective solution for producing high-quality crops. Emphasizing sustainability, this system significantly reduces the need for inputs, making it an efficient choice for growers seeking to optimize their operations while ensuring the environmental footprint is kept to a minimum.

AEssenseGrows

Location: San Jose, CA and China

Product Highlight:

  • Guardian Grow Manager 
  • AEtrium-2.1 Vertical Cloning
  • AEtrium-4 Aeroponic Blooming
  • AEssense ADU Auto Dosing Unit

AEtrium Hydroponic Grow Systems offers cutting-edge aeroponic services to significantly enhance the development and yield of crops in commercial cultivation. Leveraging advanced sensor automation and precise mechanical control, these systems are designed for both indoor clean rooms and large greenhouses, providing cultivators with the tools needed for meticulous environment management. 

The AEtrium system not only accelerates plant growth by 40% but also increases yields through dynamic nutrient-dosing recipes, ensuring bigger and more vibrant flower blooms.

Credit: AEssenseGrows

Alien

Location: Southwater, UK

Product Highlight:

  • Alien AERO™ system

The Alien AERO™ system utilizes air culture technology to provide everything necessary for robust plant growth. It features the RAIN™ pump, which operates with minimal noise, allowing users to precisely adjust feeding times and durations for cultivating exceptionally large plants.

This system employs a free-root approach that enhances nutrient uptake, leading to high-yield plant growth. With roots suspended in air rather than confined to a growing medium, the system enables faster harvesting and crop rotation. The design includes net pots with a raised grid at the base to prevent the growing medium from becoming oversaturated, thus avoiding common problems like root rot and damping off.

Innovative Growers Equipment

Location: Sycamore, IL 

Product Highlight: 

  • Aeroponic Towers

The Aeroponic Towers by Innovative Growers Equipment offer a sustainable and efficient solution for indoor cannabis cultivation, promising faster growth and increased yields. These towers are designed for various plants, including leafy greens, herbs, medicinal plants, cannabis, vegetables, and strawberries, leveraging a rotating design for even light distribution. They boast significant savings in water (up to 98%), lighting (60%), and space (75%) while enhancing fertilizer efficiency. 

Nova Aeroponics

Location: Hampshire, Illinois

Product Highlight: 

  • Nova Aeroponics Grow Boxes

Nova Aeroponics builds grow boxes from a highly specialized thermoplastic that creates the ideal environment for plants to flourish in a controlled setting. This material reflects all light back to the plants and prevents light penetration to the root zone. 

The absence of ultraviolet rays ensures cool root zone temperatures and eliminates the possibility of algae growth. Consequently, root structures stay healthy and free from harmful pests and pathogens, which also facilitates faster and simpler post-harvest cleanouts.

Aeroponics Grow Systems: The Future of Commercial Cannabis Production

Aeroponics, the cultivation tech from space, is an advanced, soil-less technology offering cannabis cultivations precise nutrient delivery and enhanced oxygen exposure. All of which set the stage for increased efficiency and sustainability in commercial operations. 

With the potential for higher yields and faster growth cycles, aeroponics helps address the demands of the exploding cannabis market. As the sector evolves, aeroponics stands out as a key solution for future-proofing cannabis cultivation, underscoring the importance of embracing cutting-edge technology for optimal production.