Urban Farming Insider: Jeff Mastin, R&D Specialist at Total Grow Horticultural Lighting

We sat down with Jeff Mastin, R&D Specialist at Total Grow Horticultural Lighting

We discuss the future of horticultural lighting, from small scale kitchen counter systems to mega-sized vertical farms.

Urban Farming Insider: Jeff Mastin, R&D Specialist at Total Grow Horticultural Lighting

Introduction

UV:  A lot of people who come across Total Grow probably aren't too familiar with it. Could talk about the background of it and your involvement, and maybe your personal story and how you got involved in the biology side of it. I'm sure people are curious why a biologist might be working with horticultural lighting

Jeff: That's could be a half hour story right there, a lot of pieces. Trying to not get too spread out on it all. The company behind total grow is called Ventis Technologies.

We had been, and still do, specialize in integrating semiconductor technologies into applications. So that was really in the realm of touch-sensing technology before we got into lighting.

But LEDs are semiconductors you use for touch-sensing technologies, so there's a strong bridge there. The lighting path started because we were working with a group of optical physicists that had a concept that they wanted to commercialize and put to the test.

Because of our skill set we were able to take this optical technology they were developing, help them build it, help them commercialize it, test it, refine it.

And really what that was based around was improving LEDs in some of the main weaknesses of them in terms of glaring and shadowing and color separation.

Some of the limitations that were really plaguing the LED industry. The end result of it is basically we had this technology that gave us great control over the spectrum that the light made and the directional output of the light in a way that a typical LED by itself couldn't do.

Because of the uniqueness of the horticultural lighting world in terms of what you need to do with a light to do it well, where you need to send it and what the spectrum should be, it actually made a lot of sense to start there with that optic. As opposed to the really crowded white lighting world.

So it fit really well into the horticultural lighting world. I was already with the company because of work that we'd been doing with, among other things, environmental technology of different sorts. Bioenergy systems, tree plantation projects in Indonesia. We do a lot of community development things.                                

So,without going too far in depth on the rabbit hole, when we started exploring the horticultural world where we could apply the technology, that's where being a biologist was a natural fit to really take a lead on the science and the research and that side of th edevelopment process for the product. And that was, I think, about 6 years ago now. So, we've come a long way since then.

UV: If you were going to distill that technical focus into trends that you're generally seeing, broad brush in the horticultural lighting space, what are you seeing?

Jeff: Yeah,so the horticultural lighting industry is really becoming revolutionized because of LEDs. Even though ten years ago and arguably five years ago, LEDs in the horticultural world were a research tool or a novelty.

They were not efficient enough yet and they were definitely not affordable enough yet to really consider them an economical general commercial sense.

But that is very quickly changing. The efficiencies are going up and prices down and they are really right now hitting the tipping point wherefore at least a lot of application, definitely not all applications, the LED world is taking over horticulture.

So,and there's a little bit of what I'd say is a positive feedback route loop, in the sense that as the prices go down and efficiencies go up and more people are buying them, there's, it's easier for the market to continue that process.

Plus LED's already were a research tool, but now the interest and the funding to do better research and the tools to do better research are also exploding. So the knowledge base is very rapidly improving.

There are still a lot of unknown questions and a lot of things to learn but at least the basics and the starting points, in terms of how do you grow a plant from a lighting perspective.

The improvement in how well we understand that has gone up quite a lot in the last, really, five years there's been a lot learned.                                 

UV: How do you view the translation of those trends into actionable points? For people who are looking for action and looking to improve their current system or looking into systems to buy and their saying, "well if I'm going to spend a couple hundred bucks on a LED lighting system, how do I make sure that what I'm buying isn't going to be obsolete in a year or two?"

Jeff: Yeah, and that's certainly a very real question. I would say that with the boom with the LEDs, there's only so far the technology can improve.

There's physical limitations. You can't make 100% efficient product that turns every bit of electricity into photons of light. At this point the efficiency level of the LEDs are good one's are up over 50%.

So can we ever get up to 70 or 80%? Probably not with an end-product, not one that's going to be affordable.

Maybe in a lab you can. So the room for improvement is still there but it's not in the category where you're going to say, well this is obsolete, I can get something three times better now.

Ten years from now the cost will be cheaper. But that again doesn't make it obsolete. So in terms of that fear, I don't think people have to worry about (current LED light technologies) being obsolete.

The biggest challenge with LEDs really comes down to the cost. Because it's not the cheapest option and so that's where the economics and the business model and really running the numbers of the economics of it all has to be done.

Because there are cases where LEDs are not the best solution.

If you're not using your lights enough the power saving doesn't add up quickly. If the quality of lighting isn't top-notch, some of the quality benefits you can achieve might not be worth the investment.

UV:  So that leads me into the next topic that I think would have an interesting perspective on, when you start talking about giving into the heavy-hitting area of maybe investing six figures into a commercial enterprise lighting system, what are the questions that need to be answered (before buying)?

Is the cost driver for those heavy-duty lighting systems strictly a efficiency rating? Will a 48% efficiency lighting system be cheaper always than a 49% efficiency lighting LED system for horticultural commercial operations? How do you look at that macro, for-profit analysis?

Jeff: Yeah. So first and foremost there's got to be questions on what is trying to be accomplished. So, of course, I think in the six figure lighting installation, we're probably talking more the full source vertical lighting indoor environment.

So in those places, first of all it's got to make sense to do it. So you've got to have a market that wants (produce) that customers can buy at a high enough price that you can afford to do at all.

For one, what crop are you growing? One of the one's that can be tougher for people to answer is, is it better to airing on the side of economic and low upfront cost? Or airing on the side maximizing the growth o fthe yield per square foot.   

Because you can have two people with essentially the exact same setup and crop but for different reasons it's going to make sense for one to use twice as much light intensity as the other.

It's going to be a different business model: the person using twice as much light is going to have a higher yield, for sure. But obviously they invested more and they have a higher operating expense because there's more lights to run.

So where that all shakes out is, that's one of the things that I think the industry is still figuring out.

And individuals have to figure out is where makes sense for them. And there's people doing it successfully on both sides of that.

Do you want your lights to be as tight on the plants as possible to stack yourshelves, as many shelves as you can, in a small vertical space?

Or do you want your lights to be two feet above the plants so you have plenty of room for your workers to be working right in there without having to move the plants around?

Are you going to provide reflectivity around the grow areas? Or is that going to be restricting air flow and access too much?

Because reflectivity will help improve uniformity and cut down at least a little on the amount of lights you need.

So some of those general things. How do you envision your system? How do you, on a day-by-day basis, want to be working? And then the business model side of things that really determine airing on the side of extra light or less light. 

UV: How much can setting up a reflectivity system...Have you done any work onlooking at how much you can recover, as far as efficiency from using your addition like that?

Jeff: That's going to vary pretty widely depending on what your setup looks like. The two big factors are: how big is the grow area? So if you've got a two by four table or you've got a five foot by thirty foot shelf, the bigger the shelf, the less proportionately, the less lights are on the edge, which means, proportionately, light lost overall.                  

The other big factor is the height. If you are doing something where you've got your lights really tight onto the plant, there's not a lot of opportunity for light to escape out the sides.

If you're trying to do one of those setups where you've got lights two feet above the plant, then there's a lot of space for light to be lost outside of the grow area. So when all is said and done the number there could range anywhere from, probably, on the smaller side, you're probably talking 5% recovery that you could possibly achieve.

Maybe a little less. In a typical situation, you're probably more inthe 10-15% range. And in the cases where you have a smaller setup with higherlighting, it could be 20-50%, depending on more extreme cases. 

UV: Is that just added on to the base lighting system efficiency?

Jeff: Yeah, that'd be the gist of it. Because if you've got 50% efficient and you've lost 20% of your light and now you're 40% efficient. And really, so when you're picking out how many lights you're going to need and this an industry person working with customers, there's a big range of who you're working with too.

In terms of whether someone can walk up and say, I want a 17 mole per meter squared per day DLI and I'm running it 18 hours, what do you recommend?

Or whether somebody's just saying, I'm growing lettuce on a shelf what should I do?

In terms of the technical savviness of laying out the light target or really having no idea.  Light is a complicated topic. It's a lot more complex than it sounds. When you might talk from the point of, my plant is lit, should it be growing?

Obviously a lot more complex than that. Ultimately from a lighting standpoint, you're trying to make a light plan to hit lighting targets of a certain intensity. A technically savvy grower that's going to know what intensity they need to aiming for.

Someone who's less familiar with it is not going to know that and it's going to be up to the lighting provider to provide a good recommendation. That's where the efficiencies and everything really calculate out.

UV: Where you would suggest going to find the suggested intensity, would you go to the (lighting) provider? It seems like they might have an incentive to tell you that you need more so that you buy more. Is that accurate? Essentially where do you think is the most reliable source of figuring out your intensity? For somebody who is less geared toward that information. 

Jeff: The safest thing is to ask a few different places for sure. You definitely want to ask the lighting provider, because they're going to have familiarity with their own light.

So for example, obviously there's bias and all that in terms of what I'll say here but, with the testing we've done and our spectrum. That's a big part of our claim to fame is part of spectrum control is, we've experienced that it had efficiency advantages over other light spectra.

So the same amount of photons is going to accomplish more. So when I give somebody a recommendation I might, depending on who I'm talking to and what's behind their light intensity recommendation, whether they understand these things or not, I might adjust what my target is a little higher or a littler lower based on what they have in their mind.                               

If they're thinking of a fluorescent or legacy light spectrum ability to grow at a certain light level, we're going to be able to accomplish that at a lower light level.

So there's nuances to it all. Other great people to talk to, if you can find somebody already doing what you're trying to do, that's a great resource. There are an increasing amount of university extension programs, places like that where you might be able to talk to somebody with a good understanding from an academia point of view.

Which sometimes that can be even more idealistic than the industry person, but it's still good input. Then the risky but potentially really good one is searching around online. You can find some good resources out there in terms of light targets.

Find a handful of them an average them out. Because there is going to be some people that are coming from different points of views and are too high or too low for different reasons compared to what you want to do.

UV: So we touched on this a little bit, but when you talk about the levels of price, can you provide an escalator of different stages of price? Would you say there's kind of a personal enthusiast cutoff? Then maybe you have your small, selling stuff to restaurants size growing system.

You may have the system where maybe you're dealing with it on an everyday basis where it's a premium system. How do you organize that out and what's the 30,000 foot view there?

Jeff: So to give just a order of magnitude sort of number, you probably going to be someplace in the fifty dollar per square foot sort of number. It can be half that it can be double that.

But that's sort of a general ballpark of what your up against. So the major factors that are going to drive that up or down: for one,and this is talking LEDs, if you're using something like a cheaper fluorescent light you're going to be able to get yourself setup for less.

You're going to pay more as you run those lights - pay maintenance and then electricity costs. then the results, depending on what you're doing, you may or may not still be happy with them with other styles of lights and same goes with LEDs.

There's good LEDs and there's bad LEDs. Just because you're using an LED light doesn't guarantee you're going to love your results.

So, some of the major factors: volume obviously matters. If you're somebody doing ten thousand square foot facility you're going to be getting thousands of lights and getting a great price on it compared to somebody setting up fifty square feet.

What I was describing before in terms of the light intensity targets, people could be growing with double the intensity for one style of lighting compared to half for another.

That's just talking within the realm of common plants of green, the lettuce, the micro greens, herbs, berries can be in the same sort of target.

If you start talking about tomatoes or medicinal plants, then the ability to use higher light levels and have the plants make good use of it kind of skyrockets. You can go four times higher with some of those other plants, and for good reason.

UV: You said an example of those may be tomatoes or maybe, what are some other examples, cucumbers or stuff like that? 

Jeff: Yes. For the most part at this point, the larger fruiting plants in general, like tomatoes or cucumbers, there's not a significant amount of people doing that totally indoors. 

That's still really a greenhouse plant and for the foreseeable future that's probably going to remain true outside of really special situations. But one of the big opportunities in the indoor world is finding high value crops. And that can be more specialty herbs that are difficult to grow.

That can be medicinal crops. When you start getting into those realms of higher value product, you can better justify on airing on the side of maximizing your yield as opposed to minimizing your investment.

So there's that plus just the size of the plant. If you're talking micro greens or lettuce and something that's probably not getting bigger than nine inches tall, there's the plant itself doesn't need to have a huge biomass to support - lettuce is more of a winter crop then a summer crop in terms of the light levels. Whereas a tomato plant you can keep throwing more light at it and it'll keep producing higher yields for a very long time.                                

Lettuce you're going to start having tip burn and some negative effects like that if you over do it. 

UV: One thing I always like to ask is what your favorite fruit or vegetable is.

Jeff: Favorite fruit or vegetable. In general my favorite fruit is something I haven't tried yet. So, I'll go with that in general. Otherwise favorite fruit would be different berries and favorite vegetable is anything sauteed with salt and butter.

 UV: If you had to distill down to one single sentence, lighting advice for a beginner, what would it be just one sentence?

Jeff: In general, like I've reiterated, know what you're trying to accomplish, who that market is and what the opportunity really is, what's going to let you be successful.

Can't answer what you're perfect lighting solution is until you know what you're trying to accomplish.

UV: What's the best advice you heard as you were learning about lighting and kind of flip the last question on it's head?

Jeff: I would say, and I don't know if this is something somebody told me or not, but I think just getting information from a lot of different sources. There's a lot of different angles that people can have or a lot of biases and a lot of misinformation out there. So, fishing around and finding reliable sources that you can trust, that's a big deal.

Thanks Jeff!
Total Grow Horticultural Lighting

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