How NASA LED lighting research became a hit product

For this interview, we sat down with  Hedi Baxter Lauffer, Founder of LED Habitats,

a company that has developed an indoor growing product was inspired by "fast"

plant research developed by NASA and the University of Wisconsin-Madison

How NASA LED Lighting Research Became A Hit Product

We discussed basic LED lighting tips, the future of LED lighting, and some of its history as well!

Interview Below: 

___

Introduction

UV: What's the background story and how LED Habitats got started?

Hedi: My husband and I have been working together in science education for a very longtime, decades now, primarily in that, our focus has been on getting plants into classrooms and informal science situations to try and help get more growing minds actively engaged with plants. 

We are getting more and more removed from opportunities to grow plants and interact and understand the importance of plants. I taught high school for a while before I started really getting national and global outreach efforts and it always amazed me when we would do a unit on food, how many students had absolutely no clue where their food had come from. 

So in our work, with getting plants into classrooms, both my husband and I were at University of Wisconsin Madison, working with "fast" plants

They're really cool little plant that was (being studied) at UW Madison, as a research plant. It was just bred through traditional plant breeding to try and look for disease resistance in cabbage. Wisconsin used to be a really big cabbage growing state. 

(Usually) cabbage has a two year life cycle, which makes it really hard to support farmers with disease resistance because it takes so long to look for it. 

This little plant was bred because it cropped up when the scientist Paul Williams was looking for disease resistance. It went straight to flower instead of producing any fruit.

He bred for this super fast life cycle. It goes from seed to flower in just fourteen days, it goes through it's whole life cycle and produces viable seed in a month to forty-five days. So, it's really cool. And, it's used in classrooms a lot.

The thing is, because it's growing so fast, it needs twenty-four hour and very high quality light. So, we've all been developing light systems for indoor growing in classrooms and things like that, for a very long time. CFL's (compact fluorescent lighting) came out first, it was fluorescent, it was the compact fluorescent light bulb.

Then finally, LED's were kind of always in the background because actually that little fast plant was the first plant to successfully produce seed in micro-gravity, up in space.

UV: With NASA?

Hedi: Yeah with NASA. So, it gave us opportunities, especially my husband at the time, was working directly with UW Madison, with NASA and others, gave exposure to the idea of LED's.

Even before they were a viable option, because there weren't blue LED's until 2009, so you couldn't really use those successfully in growing plants, in horticulture. 

UV: Which color were the earlier ones?

Hedi: They have advanced now, I think the very earliest ones were red. Well, that's areally good question. What the very first colors were and just know the blue was really hard to get. It won the Nobel prize, actually, for Physics in 2014.

When science figured out how to produce a blue LED. That opened them up for horticultural use. 

So, anyway, we were trying to look at ways to get LED's into classroom study. and be able to switch to LED's, because we had a lot of concerns about a combination of things with non LED lighting options.

The heat that's put off by other light sources, the fact that there is mercury gas in fluorescent bulbs, It seemed like LED's was the way to to go.

But, every LED light that we tried out that was commercially available and, kind of, in our price range and size and scope for use in classrooms were not very high quality.

Because our plants are so sensitive to needing high intensity light, we could really be damaged easily when the intensity of the light declined.

UV: What do you specifically mean by quality in LEDs? Is it the intensity or are there other factors like spectrum?

Hedi: It's both. (intensity) and the spectrum that they're emitting, but I think for us, what we we're detecting most was the decline in intensity. In pretty short periods of time, like eight months to a year, we would notice changes. 

Later, we learned that that was because when there's quality factors both in the LED chip itself and in the design of the match between the drivers that are pushing electricity, electrical energy into be converted into light energy. If the drivers are over pushing the LED chip, they burn them out.

(As a result), you do have a decline in quality over time. In a much faster time than what LED's are technically specified to last for.

My brother had been off the grid in New Mexico, I knew he'd done some stuff with LED's, I reached out to him and said, "Do you know anybody who's working with LED's, we're trying to find some people besides the scientists here that we've been working with at the University to help us come up with a low cost, relatively low cost solution for classroom?"

So, my brother introduced us to this German cabinet maker who is now our colleague and partner, he's been working with LED's for a long time in kitchen cabinetwork; and, he's a German craftsman, a cabinet maker, so,it was like this perfect triad of my husband and I with our plant backgrounds,I have a very strong agricultural background, I used to run a wholesale organic truck farm, many years ago.

All of these things converged and came up with this really clever design for being able to raise and lower the LEDs and how to house the LEDs, in a hood that is completely silent and self-cooling, and it worked beautifully. We tried it out, did prototypes, and got plants growing wonderfully and then we had them sitting around in our house.

As we were trying them out and everyone who walked in said where do I get one of those?

At that point we realized maybe this isn't just for school. Maybe this is actually a broader impact thing. And, that's how we came up with the company. 

UV: The research and the inspiration is with that one cabbage plant that you mentioned, is that exclusively what you try to grow in the system now? Have you brought in the reach, to other types of micro greens or whatnot?

Hedi: Yes, we have definitely broadened, even in our prototype work we broadened. The advantage that we had in doing our initial work with the brassica, is the scientific (category) of the plant.

It's like a lab rat, in that it, its a good indicator for flowering plants, in general. And, because it does its whole life cycle in such a short time. We can group past prototypes to see how they effected the grooming, vegetative growth, seed production, stuff like that in really rapid cycles.

Once we've got to where we were really pleased with what we we're seeing, then we could start going out to longer growing crops. 

UV: Right. So, have you guys seen that with a really high quality LED light, you can quicken the flowering and general growth of any plant? Like, regardless, ofi t's life cycle. You mentioned that the quality of the LED light helped you speed up even the fast plant. What's the multiplier in terms of productivity and speed to the flowering or any point in growth, when you have really high quality lighting?

Hedi: There are (multiple) key elements in the environment that affect the rate of growth, temperature often is a big one. Nutrient content, volume of the soil, so there's other factors besides the light.

But, the quality of the light and the availability of the light, in terms of intensity, and spectrum. It's so cool to work with, because you're plant responds by really producing strong, vigorous plants.

So, while it might be, I could keep my plants in very cool growing conditions and it wouldn't be that the LEDs would speed them up, necessarily, if it affected the cold.

But, what I would see, because of the light, is these really stocky, sturdy plants with large mass. They're really thriving. You'll notice the difference if you side by side grow six tomatoes under the fluorescent and LEDs that are full spectrum because the fluorescent tend towards the blue, the plants elongate and much more left out and reaching for light.

And they are so vulnerable to that. When you put them under LEDs, it's so satisfying to see, wonderfully, stocky little seedlings.

It's really cool as a plant lover, it's really fun to grow under really high quality lighting. 

UV: Can you talk about, I don't know how much interaction you have with people who are just getting started; maybe there are people who approach you tobuy but what do you see is the biggest mistakes that people make?

Or, biggest misconception about LED lighting?

Hedi: That is really something that we encounter a lot, actually. There's people who are trying to grow micro greens, there's people who are trying to grow herbs or medicines, or all kinds of things. And,I think there are three things that, kind of, continually repeat themselves.One is, the confusion about how to compare different lights, because in the past, when we use incandescent bulbs, we talk in sense of watts. And, then in terms of lumens.

But, actually watts don't matter with LEDs. That's not a good measure, because they beauty of the LEDs is that they hardly require any input of electricity, which is what watts are made of.

To have a really high output,so, you know, you can't compare an incandescent or a fluorescent wattage input with the output of the LED. It's just not a good measure.

Lumens are a measure for human. So, shifting to where we're talking about the photosynthetic area of radiation that is emitted or hard value on things like that, that's a big challenge.

The LED world does not adjust that well, we don't have a good standard for how we talk about light, lighting or label them. Although,that's coming, hopefully. I want to make sure that I also touched on, there is a real big misconception among those who have been looking at LEDs, that they don't give off heat -

They actually do. A lot of the quality of the LED chip and it's mount, and the quality of the LED lamp itself, is how that heat is dealt with.

That's the critical thing with the LED.

There needs to be a really effective design to the way the LED lamp is engineered so that the heat dissipates really quickly. And, that prolongs the life of the LED and the lives that it has good intensity.

So, I guess that is the third thing I would say is a big misconception. That an LED is an LED is an LED and that is not true.

There is high quality LEDs, that are really made by reputable manufacturers and there's cheap, crappy ones that come,trying to flood the market with something that looks much more affordable.

UV: If you wanted to set up a dead simple urban farming system, how would you do it?  

Hedi: Well,I think the dead simple part is the hanging of the LEDs and determining what the footprint is going to be that you want to light up.


LEDs, the chips themselves, tend to be uni-directional, that's part of what makes them really efficient. They're not shooting light off out the back and sides, they're shooting it in the direction that you point them.

 You can put lenses on them that broaden their footprint, their lighting, but whenever you do that,you're also then distributing their intensity over a greater area (and as a result, reducing intensity).


I think the key is, deciding how much space are you trying to light well. Then you want to be the one that rigs how the lights go up and down or do you want to get a system that already does that for you.

Because the beauty in the LED is that they're built well so they dissipate their heat well. You can have your plants, the canopy top over tops of your seedlings or whatever just a few centimeters from the LEDs themselves. That's where you're going to have the high intensity. That's the way that you want to give your plants maximum lighting. So, you need to either raise the plants up and down or lower the lights.

UV: Keeping the focus on the hanging mechanism, that's the key take away. 

Hedi: That and then the quality of the LEDs that you're getting. So, if you're just getting a cheap one strip of LEDs, be aware that you can't put that down the middle of a big, wide tray and expect that it's going to light the outside edges.

UV: How do you make sure that you're on the right track (with LED quality)? Is there some kind of measure? On YouTube, you see people measure the intensity. What tools or what do you suggest for doing the quality assurance? Or, I guess coverage assurance?

Hedi: You can get a little PAR meter, its called. That would be your most accurate measure of how many photons are actually striking the leaf surface. And, those are fairly affordable, although it's more of an investment than I would call atypical do-it-yourself thing.

So, I guess I would advise that you either do some research and make sure that the company you're buying your LEDs from LED lamp is what they actually address how much output there is, in terms of the spectrum that the lights are giving.

The PAR value, and when they tell you what the output is, that they tell you how to measure that, how far away from the light that was. If it's a good, reputable company, they will tell you what the footprint is being lit beneath it.

I would just be leery if it seems like it's over stating what is possible with the LEDs, you know then I would just be leery. I've bought enough cheap ones in our prototyping work and before we started doing LED Habitats.

You end up investing more money than you wanted anyway on ones that you can't continue to use, if you've got really cheap ones. They just won't work.

UV: So, what are some of the, what are some of your favorite brands? What would you recommend? Obviously, besides your own system.

Hedi: We've been pretty impressed by some of the higher end lights. Like by kind. You know, I would have to actually give you a list of, the problem is that, the world that I work in because I've had the benefit of being in the University system. The lights that we've had really good luck with are very high end horticultural LEDs.

So, when we tried to go into the lower, more cost effective, like you'd bring into your home or something like that range, things like Aero Garden and stuff like that.

That's where we started running into problems and that was what drew us to do the LED Habitat (product creation).

 I could try and come up with some responses for you. Mostly, I've had people send me pictures of other LED systems that they're trying to use and some other things.

Their little seedlings are all elongated and stretching and reaching for the light, I just haven't been very impressed yet. 

UV: What do you see as the future, what is the next wave of technology that will downsize in (LED) cost so that they're more available to the average person?
Is there a new type of LED? Are there new blends? What do you see as the next big trend?

Hedi: Iwas really impressed at the first annual LED Light and Horticulture Conference that was in Chicago. I was really impressed by how much enthusiasm there was towards the place that LEDs will take in horticulture.

Certainly, high pressure sodium still is a big, important light source for indoor growing.  

I think that it's clear that with this vertical farming movement, the fact that you can layer into tight spaces,the growing space and the lighting is just phenomenal. And, it's pretty exciting to look at some of the large scale projects that are taking place with vertical farming.

I'm sure that LED technology is going to continue to get better. I think already even, it's pretty affordable. I think that on a small scale, it's not that bad.

It'sworth it. I think that there are some really nice options for tabletop or counter top growing. Helping to supplement the freshness of what you're feeding your family and larger scale urban farming too. 

UV: What is your favorite fruit or vegetable?

Hedi: My favorite fruit or vegetable? Wow. Okay, avocado. 

UV: If you had to give  just one sentence of advice to somebody starting urban or vertical farming or LEDs or not. What would that advice be just in one sentence?

Hedi: Start with greens. Doing like brassica family greens. They're super fast, easy to get to know and they're really rewarding and good for you.

UV: Okay What's the best advice you ever heard from maybe a mentor or somebody that you encountered in the academic setting?
 
Hedi: Soil matters.  You know, we sometimes, especially in academia, but in general, get really arrogant. Thinking that we can deconstruct nature and understand it all.

So, having humility about things and learning from the natural world and recognizing that soil is part of the picture, and it matters.

Thanks Hedi!
www.ledhabitats.com

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