Architects, lighting designers and former NASA engineers detail new bio-driven lighting solutions for advanced sustainable indoor agriculture.

Innovating Ag-Lighting
Innovating Ag-Lighting

Troy McClellan, Vice-President, Design & Construction | AgriFORCE Growing Systems

If indoor farms are being called to solve some of world’s challenges in areas such as food security and in providing clean, non-GMO and pesticide-free crops for plant-based medicines, the agriculture industry needs a better way to help plants achieve their full genetic potential. 

 

There Is Room for Improvement

Consumer expectations and global need are putting unprecedented demands on farmers and the AgTech industry to evolve and embrace new approaches for farming. New lighting technology combined with innovations in leveraging natural sunlight can turn costly, energy-inefficient indoor grow operations into eco-friendly solutions for affordable, sustainable, good-tasting, nutrient-rich produce that is locally harvested. For an industry that is steeped in tradition and held back by the legacy systems of this past, this new design is a call to the future.

Artificial light changed everything for humans about a century and a half ago, extending the days well past dusk for work and leisure. In the last several years, science has provided a deeper understanding of how light affects the human body throughout the day – from the spectrum of the light and energy realized to our biological and emotional well-being. We are now finding similar data regarding artificial lighting effects on plants, driven largely by concerns over food insecurity and growing interest in plant-based medicines. 

There is still much to learn from natural light as we work to find more ways for it to provide benefits. One key area of research is light’s impact on indoor farming, which depends heavily on artificial lighting to grow products. Conventional ag-lighting technologies are used today, meaning that this lighting has not yet fully evolved to provide an optimal growth of crops. For plants to thrive in an indoor commercial growing operation, we need to understand what plants need at the biological level, similar to what we are discovering with light’s impact on humans. New lighting science and technology are necessary to help crops thrive indoors effectively and efficiently. 

 

It’s Time to Do Better

Indoor farming is a capital-intensive enterprise. Startup costs, working CAPEX and OPEX can easily reach into the tens of millions of dollars depending on size, geographical location, systems technologies, crop type, and various other factors. It stands to reason that with all of the costs that they face, growers tend to look for the cheapest solutions for their growing systems. 

As the cost of LED lighting continues to drop and its efficacies continue to evolve, many growers have moved away from other kinds of horticultural lighting sources like halogen, fluorescent or, most prominently, high-intensity discharge (HID) technology. LEDs consume less power which means reduced energy costs, less crop directed thermal energy, reduced HVAC costs, extended life expectancy, reduced maintenance costs, and more importantly ensured continuity and stability. 

Even with these cost savings, indoor growers, working to stretch CAPEX and OPEX budgets continue to chase the least expensive LED lighting for their operations. They search for the perfect “turnkey” system that will be the hottest new trick in lighting. They now have an abundance of mass market, off-the-shelf Ag-LED options from numerous manufacturers to choose from – not helpful to the Ag- community. These systems come from an industry’s single point of view with very little understanding of the systems performance. In fact, most horticultural LED lighting offered is a decade behind the advances of the current professional lighting industry. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is true here. There is a cost and associated risk in choosing the least expensive products available: sub-optimal performance. 

 

It Starts with The Plant

A collaborative team of architects, engineers, plant and bio-specialists, lighting designers, former NASA scientists, and lighting manufacturers have partnered to develop best-in-class, bio-science-tech driven supplemental grow lighting systems for indoor farming. The results are proprietary LED lighting solutions – combined with natural sunlight – to help plants achieve optimal flavor, nutrition and yield potential, while dramatically reducing energy consumption. 

One of the many challenges for indoor growers is in providing plants with enough of the right kind of light for effective photosynthesis to grow optimally, regardless of the geographical location and climate.

To achieve optimal goals of a new supplemental lighting platform, the design starts by applying science and bio research and development, rather than intuition and old habits. This is done to gain a complete understanding of the dynamics and performance metrics of the plant’s biology. Then, this information is used to develop the near ideal supplemental lighting conditions for each specific crop. Each crop has its own unique criteria.

The team also understands the need to augment natural sunlight with supplemental LED grow lighting in order to create controlled conditions producing far more robust, flavorful and higher-yield crops. Using this process, there is much less utility demand and far less environmental impact, which allows for sustainability. Extending natural light throughout the day, as a part of the design formula, surpasses the plant’s photosynthesis requirements.

 

Here Comes the Sun

This new hybrid proprietary lighting technology was partially inspired by the bio generative life control systems that NASA designed for space habitats. High-yield LED fixtures provide patent-pending technology that delivers more yield than typical ag-LED fixtures. The spectrum is scientifically engineered for optimal Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) photon efficacy, the specific light spectrum plants prefer for photosynthesis. In the same way humans depend on a balanced relationship of energy and spectrum, plants also depend on their own relationship of energy and spectrum. 

The next step for the team was to fine-tune the spectrum contribution. A plant’s photoreceptors can influence growth within different developmental stages, making it possible to enhance plant growth cycles, productivity and yield by tuning the supplemental light wavelength. Typical agriculture lighting practices deliver the same conditions through the plant’s life cycle. With the new methodology, programable LED fixtures make highly customized criteria possible, which can affect a plant’s physiology, optimizing desired crop traits. 

The team also needed to consider light uniformity, which is how the light is distributed across a given growing area. It regulates crop growth, plant development, and flowering schedules. If light is not distributed in a uniform manner, crops can develop unevenly and poorly. With this new approach, the platform can achieve a uniform blanket of light that can easily be managed to achieve the most effective penetration of light into the plant canopy.

It is important to note that relying on artificial lighting alone to grow crops indoors has drawbacks. Despite the energy-saving advantages of LED over traditional lighting, urban indoor farms use a significant amount of energy and materials to deliver excessive amount of light, even when solar panels help supplement electricity production.

 

Breaking New Ground

This is a solution that integrates biotech with advanced supplemental lighting to transcend the best elements of natural light. More robust, flavorful, higher yield and cost-effective crops can be grown in full natural sunlight supplemented with artificial lighting. 

Maximizing sunlight when it’s available is essentially free energy for powering operations. But that doesn’t mean simply equipping traditional greenhouses with Ag-industry standard supplemental lighting sources. While it may seem counterintuitive, even the clearest glass greenhouses inhibit the full light spectrum of the sun. This new grow house building envelope utilizes advanced transparent and translucent materials that are nearly 95% solar transparent at 50μm. In addition to saving on lighting energy costs, natural light also warms the microclimate when necessary, dramatically reducing heating energy requirements. 

Combining natural sunlight with supplemental grow lighting significantly enhances and extends the crop’s photoperiod beyond natural daylight hours, maximizes growth and quality, and reduces time to harvest by up to 50%. This new kind of precision growing system uses up to 90% less energy than traditional indoor grow operations.

There are plans for this new technology to be installed and operated in advanced growing facilities in Coachella, California. It integrates natural sunlight with precisely tuned LED technology managed by comprehensive plant and biometric devices and control systems along with a sensor matrix driven by Internet of things (IoT). This creates as perfect as possible growing environments for the unique needs of each crop during specific life cycle phase of the plant.

 
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AgriTechTomorrow

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