Making a food computer

December 3, 2016


JCCC student wins national developer award for his futuristic project

Rest assured: it may be in pieces now, but Ben Carpenter will complete a personal food computer.

“Those who know me know that once I get an idea into my head, I don’t stop,” he said.

For his tenacity and technical skills, the Johnson County Community College student was named the Terry O’Banion Student Developer Champion for 2016. Sponsored by the League for Innovation in the Community College, the title comes with a $2,500 award.

Lisa Friedrichsen, professor of web development and digital media, nominated Carpenter for the national award. She invited him to JCCC’s new CoLab so she could officially announce the news.

“We are all so proud of you, Ben,” she said. Her message was a reiteration of what she told the selection committee: “Ben’s joy, curiosity about how things work, and patience make him an exceptional candidate for this honor.”

What a food computer does

Carpenter’s workshop is on the third floor of the Regnier Center. The personal food computer, still in its infancy, looks more like a puppet theater made from Styrofoam than an actual food-producing technology.

Once it’s complete, it will be able to grow plants without using soil. A seed already set into a fertilized growing medium will be placed into a box. Then a computer will control the time and intensity of grow lights, irrigation, temperature and humidity.

Carpenter is lead hardware engineer for the project. He’s using instructions available to the public from the MIT Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative. These computers are built from scratch, and only a few currently exist.

Finding the right ‘recipe’

Because of the food computers’ rarity, Carpenter is contributing to the gadget’s “recipe.” Use of the word “recipe” is just shorthand for best and most efficient uses of key growing factors. For example:

  • How long should the grow lights stay on?
  • Should they be used during only one interval during the day, followed by a long rest to mimic the day/night growth cycle?
  • Or is there a way, within this controlled environment, to improve on Mother Nature and her once-a-day sun?

Once the best food computer recipe is found, pioneers can move to more complicated plants. Carpenter foresees the day when we’ll all have our own food-computer orchards just off the kitchen. “Tree-sized food computers don’t have to have seasons because they’re isolated from the environment. You don’t have to worry about climate, about whether it’s too cold or whether you get enough sun,” he said.

The result, then, would be freshly squeezed orange juice from an orange tree in Kansas, or Alaska, or even the North Pole. It’s not magic – just the next step in agriculture technology.

To boldly go…

“When I first heard of the (food computer) project, I thought of the replicators on ‘Star Trek,’” he said. In that sci-fi TV and movie series, computers create food with a simple voice command. Food computers aren’t replicators, but they’re a step closer.

Friedrichsen and Carpenter have discussed the future of food computers and agree that one day, they’ll be as common as microwaves.

As Carpenter builds his food computer, he maintains a 4.0 GPA and a full load of classes. He said he dreams of one day working for DARPA, a U.S. Department of Defense agency responsible for creating emerging technologies. Its predecessor employed the people who invented the Internet, Carpenter said.

“It would be cool to work at the place that invented the Internet,” he said. There, the idea of a replicator can’t seem too far out of reach…

To learn more about classes in web development and digital media, go online to view the credit program or the Continuing Education classes offered. For further help, contact James Hopper, chair of the web development and digital media department, at 913-469-8500 ext. 3168.