LED there be light!
Evgeny Gubin is Horticulture Engineer at Crocus Labs. The Berlin-based startup was founded in 2020 and develops lighting technology for indoor and vertical farming. Their aim is not only to contribute to more efficient and cost-effective cultivation, but also to higher yields and optimized harvests.
Evgeny, what is your technology and why is it better than what we have on the market so far?
We develop lighting solutions for greenhouses and vertical farms. By developing our technologies, we create a significant reduction in energy costs in agriculture. The tradition of artificial lighting began in the 1960s / 70s. Sodium vapor lamps were used first which can still be found in some greenhouses today - and they work! Subsequently came the combination of red and blue diodes (LEDs) which have led to the well-known pink light. Currently, there are also lighting systems with a so-called "full spectrum" with a white light for us humans, but a big spectrum. Plants, however, are complex and this is both species and variety specific. Each has a slightly different requirement - for example, in the different stages of development. Then there are the goals of the cultivator. While you want a rich harvest, it can also be about morphology or their ingredient concentrations or compositions.
Our lighting solutions bring high efficiency and a controllable spectrum, which in the future will be smartly controlled similar to dynamic exposure. In this form, this does not yet exist in commercial horticulture.
...why is such a new solution needed?
The problems we are currently seeing in agriculture are more extreme climates - for example drought, heat, but also heavy rainfall and the like - which is why controlled conditions are increasingly becoming the safer choice for farmers. However, for these options to become attractive and sustainable - economically and ecologically - new solutions are needed. Horticulture 4.0, as we call it.
Why do your LEDs make these options more sustainable?
On one hand, they are less expensive, they use less energy to light the plants. Vertical farms, so-called "Plant Factories with Artificial Light" (PFAL), currently consume 50-70% of their total energy use just for lighting. With our products, this would mean the same number of photons for significantly less money. And: less consumed watts protect the environment. Our technology can also shorten the cultivation period, increase yield and quality, and promote more vigorous plants. You also need fewer resources, for example for crop protection.
How do you know what light the plant currently needs?
There's already some research into which light spectrum is most important in which growth phase for which crop - for germination, growth or maturation, for example. And the fascinating thing is that you can model the nature of the plant through light recipes and application of other cultivation methods. This leads to completely new possibilities in crop production.
So by adjusting the spectrum in this way, you also optimize growth?
Exactly, that's one of the advantages. We can improve crop yields and reduce costs in the process, because optimizing the spectrum also requires less electrical energy.
...an advantage over the sun or the weather in the field, right?
Exactly. In such areas, we see the advantage of indoor farming and artificial light over outdoor cultivation, where, for example, the amount of UV light cannot or can hardly be controlled. This can lead to plants growing too compactly, for example, and producing lower yields. This is a problem when looking at medicinal plants, for example. Here, consistently high quality with the same ingredients is required. They are much easier to grow under controlled conditions. Another advantage over outdoor cultivation is the conservation of water as a resource. In closed systems, plant growth is controlled by means of sensors, and watering is thus optimized to such an extent that only as much water is used as is actually necessary. Water uptake and release by plants can also be controlled by means of specific wavelengths. The right light recipe results in almost no losses.
Are there also advantages of the old technologies, or do LEDs have the edge everywhere?
Advantages is perhaps the wrong word, but there are other variables that are changed in the new technologies - for example, the sodium vapor lamps used in the past were much warmer than LEDs. This also changes the climate in the greenhouse. After the retrofit, the climate control system may need to be adjusted - but this opportunity can also be used to implement new energies and technologies and make the operation holistically future-proof.
How big is the market and the willingness in the industry to switch to new solutions like yours?
The market is large, because many farmers want to operate more sustainably and in a more energy-efficient manner - especially in times when ancillary costs such as electricity and gas are becoming more expensive, this is of course very much asked for. However, it is of course an investment.
But the good thing is that not everything has to happen immediately. For example, you can initially use the new technologies only in certain areas, such as to raise young plants. This way, if implemented well, you can expect faster growth and fewer plant failures. And at the same time, you can familiarize yourself with the technology, make investments step by step, and ensure a changeover of operations.
What does the future of artificial light hold for us?
We have seen huge development successes in recent years. With light, there is a physical limit - at some point you can't optimize any further. We're not at that point yet, but of course we're striving to get there.
...to then really be ready to be able to operate indoor farming efficiently?
Yes and no. Of course, this is a step in the right direction. But efficiency is only one aspect of the light. We also have to look at where the light or the electricity for it comes from, especially in indoor farming. Because if it is not obtained from a sustainable source, the entire concept is of course not very sustainable. Optimizing the light alone is therefore not the only key to success.
Thank you, Evgeny, for the interview! All information about Crocus Labs can be found here: https://crocuslabs.com