Episode 5 of Talking Engineering: An Interview with Phillip Lee

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In 7 years, Phillip completed 5 PhDs’ worth of research (to which he retains all IP) in the fields of advanced systems and building envelope design for Greenhouse crop production. He is now the CEO of RIPE Building Services Ltd, and a Managing Director at Evolve Growing Solutions Ltd. Notable events in Phillip’s career include winning the 2008 SET Award (Sustainable Energy Technology) in South Korea and helping to design and build the Sahara Forest Project in Qatar for the 2012 UN Climate Change Talks.  

In November 2019, RIPE, which was established to exploit new patents in increasing the sustainability and commercial viability of greenhouses, opened the Natural Light Growing Centre at the University of Warwickfunded by Innovate UK. The purpose of this centre is to conduct significant primary research into the critical impacts of natural light (UV in particular) on all aspects of commercial greenhouse production from naturally increasing disease and pest resistance to improving pollination and yields, nutritional content and shelf life of produce 

I was fortunate enough to be able to conduct an interview with Phillip in late 2020, the highlights of which are contained in the article below. During the interview, we talked not only about the work he is currently doing and the new innovations he is pioneering in the field of growing solutions, but also about the concept of a ‘Circular Economy’ and about the deeper meaning of sustainability. 

JH: Evolve Growing Solutions describes itself as committed to the further development of biomimicry techniques as the key starting point to truly sustainable technology developments. Building on this, could you describe briefly how Evolve came about? 

PL: My first degree was essentially in converting waste to energy to food. My particular focus was on the food end of the process because I had been around farms for most of my adult life. Evolve originally came about for the purpose of creating completely closed-loop food production circuits integrated into energy sources. This ranged from laying deep-see pipes to pull 6-degree water using a fraction of the energy that it would take using conventional systems, the adaption and development of greenhouse systems and glazing materials, research into bio-stimulants that go into plants, and the use of waste heat, water and electricity from the water treatment plants.  

“Evolve is pretty much the only ‘architectural’ design practice in horticulture in the world. What we mean by that is we don’t have any products to sell. For each project, which is typically at the more challenging end of the spectrum of growing, we bring together all the appropriate technology to achieve optimal growth and long-term profitable operations for our clients, always with a first step towards sustainability. Our hook line is: It’s only sustainable if everybody can use it. We own and have access to critical patents needed in order to unlock it: the catalyst patents and the knowledge. But then we bring in the widest team of expertise, capability and ability to deploy it to push it forward.” 

JH: I would like to talk a bit about the concept of a circular economy. My understanding is that this term refers to an economy in which the waste products from every sector can be used as the inputs into other sectors, thereby creating a more sustainable world. Could you elaborate on this? 

PL: Yes, I completely agree with your definition. Back when I began my career, nobody wanted to talk about the importance of a circular economy at all. It was too complicated; it was too unnecessary. Nowadays, people are starting to realize that the concept involves a process of thinking rather than just a process of engineering that you either do or do not do. It must not be based on over-engineering to achieve green wash credentials. Instead, it absolutely must be that the waste of one thing is a genuine feedstock of another.  

During my PhD times, I also established a farm called Hollytree Farm, where we were growing arguably the best pork in England, and we were milling our own feed from various different waste streams. We were taking waste carrots and parsnips from the food supply chain and using this to enhance the pigs’ feed, so they had a more natural diet. We sold 1.5 years’ worth of produce in 11 hours when it was supposed to run for a week. We had to close it and refund half the money because it was not just about the quality of the produce but the back story: people got this whole model even when applied to rearing pigs.  

JH: You have a lot of projects underway at the moment, one of which is centered around Natural Light Growing at the University of Warwick. What new innovations are you implementing when it comes to this particular project?  

PL: One of the most important things we are doing up at the University of Warwick is looking at ETFE as a greenhouse material. ETFE is a fluorine-based polymer – not based on hydrocarbons – so it is a material with an incredibly long lifespan, very high light transmission and almost complete chemical inertness to the environment from UV chemical degradation. It is used extensively in the Oil and Gas industry because of these properties and pretty much everything made of plastic is made of one of the fluorine polymers. Essentially, it’s an incredibly stable material. In addition, it has a very long lifespan, at least 50 years, but there is data to confirm that it is in fact a lot longer. For example, if you get a hole in it and you come back 50 years later to repair it, that hole will not propagate, even in extreme storm conditions, which are incredibly important for buildings as large scale and minimalist as a greenhouse. Last but not least, you can melt it and re-blow it as exactly the same material, we believe ad infinitum. So it is a revolution. It is only plastic in terms of its material properties not in terms of our general understanding of what plastics are. 

A hugely important time in my career was when we negotiated a contract with AGC – the biggest glass and ETFE materials manufacturer in the world. We acted as the global technical advisers for the material to get it into western-style greenhouses over the next 4 years.  

We wanted them to conduct the primary research into the impact of UV light on commercial crops across plant health, quality of produce, pest and disease control and propagation, but they didn’t see this as their problem as they were entirely focused on manufacturing. Our experience with this issue is what prompted us to step aside and create RIPE, which stands for Rapid Installation Process of ETFE, to create the machinery and mechanisms and building designs in order to take this high-tech material into large-scale commercial greenhouses. In my opinion, ETFE with a permanent lifetime is critical for its largescale adoption into horticulture. 

JH: What is the significance of other innovations you are currently working on 

PL: First of all, I would like to talk about the importance of innovation in general, with reference to one specific case study. Not too long ago, we were put forward for the Fraunhofer Award, which is essentially what was the UK wishes its innovation systems could be. Based in Germany, they have 67 centers on pretty much every subject there is. They have a £2.5 bn/year budget, one third of which is generated from industry. All the IP that is submitted for the award from companies around the world goes into the Fraunhofer Society for the ultimate benefit of Germany. So, if anyone reading this ever makes it into UK politics, take my advice and put things like that in place, because that is why the German Industrial machine is so powerful.  

In terms of our innovations, we own the global rights on an entirely new process for plasmid coating and heating. In addition, there are 27 other innovations we are working on, though I would have to kill you if I told you about some of them. However, what I can reveal is as follows. We are establishing a growing method we call Natural Light Growth, which differs from Organic and Conventional Growth. We have discussed with some of the biggest brand names in the food/fresh produce industry. I think of the concept of organic growth as an 18th century model of production which has its virtues. However, you cannot step outside of it, for example, you cannot feed an herbivore species of fish with plant waste or plant material and take away from that fish to feed plants hydroponically – the produce of those plants cannot be classed as organic, which is insane as it has come from an organic source. Scientifically this is not possible, but this is not science, it is religion or an entity that looks in one direction and cannot change its own rules. On the other end of the spectrum, conventional growth is driven by maximum yields. I describe Natural Light Grow is something in the middle. What makes up the 3 sides of the triangle is of natural light growth is: 1) Natural light; 2) Enhancements from natural plant extracts by stimulants; and 3) Biologically active substrates.   

When I stepped out of my first degree to go and pursue a second first degree at Reading University in Soil Science, I was introduced to the charcoal-enriched oils in the Amazon Rainforest. The problem is that you cannot patent charcoal. Its arguably the oldest technology we know about – the creation of charcoal led to the creation of steel. So, we used all the research we had done into soil enhancing the root zone into action, using charcoal, and other materials as well as micro and macro bacteria. Upon kicking off the trials, we found out that this stuff turns on all of the genes that get switched off by heat stress that we observed in the control plants. We then landed a £1m grant to understand what half of that stuff we had been working with even does. We managed to increase yields despite changes in temperature, with almost no impact on the plant’s health at all.  

There are a few other things, but I just cannot tell you about them now because they are so new. We may be pioneering an entirely new fluoro-polymer material for glazing which would break open the poly-tunnel world and replace all that plastic ending up in the ocean. Plastic build-up is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Because that plastic has to go somewhere. And the reality is that the growers from there and across Europe are now increasingly growing in north Africa where there are no EU rules on how to dispose of plastic.  

JH: We have talked about the beliefs which underlies and drives your work, including your research and commercial endeavours. Could you elaborate on this, as well as your views on a circular economy? 

PL: If I was to say what drives me, it is that we should not be approaching any of these subjects from a point of view of fear of the effect of Carbon Dioxide on a changing climate. We should be doing this because it is the right and only thing to do. We have a responsibility to this. And I think that is fundamentally different because with a fear-driven situation, the desire is to get to a place of safety.  We should be doing what is right. It should be against the law for materials from the process of water treatment to not be recycled back into the loop by being used for the growing of food. It should be common sense. Right now, the reality is: a water company that is a regulated but commercial business, makes money every day no matter what it does. So, to expect an entity like that that is essentially a monopoly to be overtly entrepreneurial or innovative or disruptive in the adoption of new technologies is outside its core activities, is naïve. This should be legislated. There should be an onus of responsibility to do so.  

From my experiences with living in indigenous cultures where they have nothing and they live in a world of plenty, I have seen that with each and everything they take out of the environment, there is a level of awareness. I would like to finish with a quote: “Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realise that one cannot eat money.” This philosophy is what drives me at the very base. What drives me at the top is that we should not be making all these lists of sustainable this and sustainable that because of fear. We should be doing it because it is the right thing to do for future generations.  

A note from the writer: Talking Engineering is back in 2021 with a discussion on the crucial topic of sustainability. As ever, I hope you enjoyed it and do let me know if you have a specific area of engineering and technology in mind to which you would like me to dedicate a future episode. Next month’s episode is certainly one to look forward to, but in the meantime, don’t hold back from indulging in the first four episodes if you haven’t already.

– Jasper Hersov

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