Agriculture & LED Lighting

LED Grow Light Market Looks Promising

The LightFair International 2016 last week with the main goal of starting research on Strategies Unlimited’s new report on the Agriculture lighting market – due to be published in September. One thing I noticed was how little horticulture lighting products were showcased at the show. Also, there was only one conference session on this market, which I attended. One big takeaway from discussing this market with the companies showcasing products is that no one really knows what’s going on.

The agriculture market can be broken into different segments such as protein including chicken, cows, pigs, and fish; and horticulture including flora, fruits, vegetables, and now cannabis. Cannabis has become a hot topic in the industry ever since medical marijuana became legal in 24 states and recreational use marijuana legal in 4 with more states looking to legalize in the next few years. It could be a very lucrative market; some projections I’ve read have the total legal cannabis market in 2015 at near $5.5 billion and possibly being a $10 billion market year on year going forward. HID is currently the best option for cannabis until LEDs can reach the same intensity while offering better efficiency. I also heard that just the lighting portion of the protein market was around $15-20 billion a year globally.

HID metal halide and high pressure sodium lights are the main light source for agriculture lighting as well as fluorescent. However, like in the general lighting space, the benefits of LED lighting caused many companies to look at this technology as the new way forward. LEDs are much cooler than HID and therefore companies can save on cooling costs. Also, because of their low heat, you can place the light much closer to the plants allowing growers to stack more products in vertical farms. Having the ability to control the LEDs, either by being able to dynamically tune the lights, have them on set schedules, or collecting data through the lights on growth progress and environmental conditions is another added benefit.

LEDs can be tuned to specific wavelengths to provide optimal growth and yields for specific plants. Plants and animals, like humans, have circadian rhythms and by using light you can manipulate this rhythm to “trick” the plants and animals into thinking 20 hours is a 24 hour day therefore increasing production, for example. The biggest issue is that no one really knows what the optimal wavelengths are for each plant and/or animal. There is a lot of research being done between lighting companies and universities to try and determine “light recipes” for specific plants, with the idea of patenting these recipes. But, each type of plant reacts differently to different recipes, different species of the same plant seem to react differently, and one plant can require different wavelengths of light depending on where it’s at in the growing process. So there is still a lot of research to be done.

What seems to be commonly understood is that plants primarily absorb light around 450nm and 660nm (blue and red, respectively). But there are others who say green light around 550nm as well as infrared and UV are also important. These different light recipes need to be figured out before LED lighting can really penetrate these markets. Otherwise, growers are going to be unhappy with these promises if the wrong recipes are used. From what I could tell on most of the products at LFI, it seemed as though they just threw some red and blue LEDs on a board and called it a grow light. And while this may be a good solution for your average consumer, one thing it shows me is that the industry is still in its infancy and that more research needs to be done. I do not think a ‘one size fits all’ solution is best on a commercial or industrial scale, and especially not if you are trying to optimize plant production while reaping all the benefits LEDs have to offer.