Intelligent LEDs Help Farmers Grow Superfoods

By Amy Goetzman | June 11, 2024

Indoor farming technologies centered around intelligent LEDs help grow new “superfood” crops that serve pharmaceutical and nutritional industries

New indoor farming technologies that can create perfect growing conditions are taking the element of chance out of crop production. As climate change makes traditional farming less predictable, indoor vertical farming operations offer protected and optimized growing technologies for many crops, including new products that serve nutritional as well as medicinal needs. In these high-tech greenhouses, finely tuned LED lighting delivers the perfect mix of spectrums calibrated to a crop’s optimal growth through every stage of production. Sensor-rich connected systems monitor heat, light, moisture, and air flow in these facilities, which can be connected to smart building and energy systems through the internet of things (IoT) technology for full control and visibility.

Tomatoes, greens, mushrooms, and herbs are a few familiar foods grown indoors. The pharmaceutical and nutritional supplement industries are also looking to vertical farming for microalgae production. Würth Elektronik has partnered with Agile Solutions to create a highly efficient LED lighting system to grow spirulina, a blue-green microalgae “superfood” that is an important element of supplements, medications, livestock feed, and an ingredient in foods such as breads. Spirulina is up to seven times more protein-rich than tofu and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Spirulina is an important raw material for the pharmaceutical industries where it is being studied for treatments including inflammatory conditions, high cholesterol, cancer, and diabetes. It has been shown to reduce the effects of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh, India, Taiwan, and Chile, where millions of people are affected by high concentrations of arsenic in drinking water. Spirulina has even been on the menu in space; NASA missions provided spirulina to astronauts.

Microalgae products are expected to see a market growth of 10.9%, particularly in Europe, where Germany takes a leading role with 16 microalgae-producing companies. Algae cultivation takes place in closed indoor systems under controlled conditions with plant-optimized lighting. Würth Elektronik developed a special LED curtain for Agile Solutions using 700 mid-power LEDs to provide the algae cultures with the ideal lighting.

“LED lighting technology, in general, and plant-optimized lighting, in particular, is not new territory for us,” explains Alexander Gerfer, CTO at Würth Elektronik eiSos. “With our Connected Vertical Farm prototype, we have already demonstrated, on a small scale, how plants grow and thrive excellently under the ideal LED lighting. And underwater, it works in a very similar way. Thanks to our targeted support, Agile Solutions was able to significantly shorten the development time and quickly bring a sophisticated lighting system to market with integrated self-diagnosis and optimized load distribution.”

Advancements in lighting, heating, watering, and control systems have empowered a future-looking farming industry to develop LED systems for indoor greenhouses. With LEDs, the different stages and cycles of plant development can be controlled by providing different wavelengths of light to gain greater yields or reduce growing times. Water usage is greatly reduced due to reduced evaporation and the control of humidity and temperature in the installation. The control or elimination of insects, fungi, or bacterial pests is also more effective because of the closed system. In addition, the carbon footprint of food production and supply can also be significantly reduced by building the installations close to population centers, reducing transportation costs and fuel use. Vertical farming installations can produce significantly larger yields than conventional agriculture and low-tech greenhouses.

Würth offers a range of LED modules developed for specific horticultural needs, as every type of plant will respond differently to various combinations of light wavelength and intensity. In addition, different physical characteristics are preferred for different types of plants. For example, salad vegetables can be grown to have thin, light leaves for improved texture when eating, flowers can be grown in light that enables them to bloom at the optimal time, for as long a duration as possible, and pineapples can be grown to inhibit the flowering process to better control the harvest period.

To meet these requirements, Würth offers the WL-SMDC SMD Mono-color Ceramic LED Waterclear range of LEDs in wavelengths of 450 nm (Deep Blue), 660 nm (Hyper Red), and 730 nm (Far Red), which have been selected to match the absorption spectra of photosynthetic pigments. These products can be designed into systems in combinations that cater to specific crops and cultivars ranging from herbs to algae.

At the recent Digital Life Design (DLD) in Munich, Gerfer explained the advantaged of vertical farming and noted that artificial intelligence will enable further refinements and control in this quickly evolving industry. “Today, circuit designs can be developed much faster with AI support. It’s important, however, that the components planned this way are also available in large quantities and in consistent quality.”

Come what may in the natural world, horticultural technologies will find new ways — and new foods — to grow.

Learn more about LED solutions for horticulture from Würth.

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Amy Goetzman
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