Alessandro Pasini, Innovation Manager of C-LED, responds

How did the idea of a partnership between the University of Bologna and Cefla’s C-LED come about?
A few years ago Cefla set up an “Innovation & Business Development” team. This innovation-focused team has several goals. One of its functions is to act as a sort of technological and business ‘antenna’, attuned to new trends and developments. And that has led to the establishment of contacts with the world’s most important, cutting-edge research facilities. With regard to the matter of growing vegetables where there is little or no sunlight, a partnership was established with Bologna University’s Department of Agricultural Sciences, which has years of experience in the field.

Their specific know-how has been combined with the electronic, software and lighting skills of CEFLA’s new start-up company, C-LED, which has already gained a reputation for the fast design and production of technologically advanced LED applications. For this project, C-LED decided to finance the research by providing a study grant and supplying its own ‘growing’ products, which are now installed in Bologna University’s experimental greenhouse facility.

Is this the first such study in this field or are you following up on past studies and trying to improve on them?
Research into such cultivation systems has largely stemmed from NASA research programmes. Some years ago, when the United States began investing in the design of human colonies on Mars, much of the research was directed at finding a way to grow plants in an environment without any sunlight. Since then, thanks to huge technological advances in the LED sector, some major manufacturers have initiated programmes designed to capitalise on these findings. These developments, combined with access to university research databases, have allowed C-LED to come up with LED lamps calibrated to specific wavelengths. Consequently, specific plants can be made more productive and their nutraceutical characteristics enhanced. An example of this cultivation method was presented at MACFRUT 2017, where various microgreen plants were grown using just water and LED lighting.
During the various development periods – from germination to the actual production of fruits or vegetables – each type of plant reacts to different light spectra. In terms of the amount and type of light, the LEDs developed by C-LED can be adapted to specific plant types precisely. For example, they can be used to good effect in the winter cultivation of tomatoes: being able to extend the available hours of light is, in fact, essential to successful off-season production.

How many researchers are involved in the project? Are they engineers, architects or from other fields?
This is a multidisciplinary project involving, as anticipated, electronic and software engineers, agronomists and experienced biologists who, as a team, study how the system affects plant yields from a nutraceutical and organoleptic standpoint.

Where did you begin and how has research developed since? Description of the stages.
Cefla has a formal, methodological innovation system: in their early stages, ideas are assessed by the ‘Innovation’ team that weighs up their business potential and the relative level of corporate know-how in order to gauge the ‘gap’ that needs to be bridged to put the ideas into practice. By way of technological partnerships or licensing, the idea is then examined in greater depth, re-assessed and developed into a new concept that might also be the subject of patenting. After first establishing contact with the university department, things moved ahead quickly with the set-up of an electronic sensor system, control software and irrigation equipment. The system in the greenhouse and in the C-LED labs is, in fact, controlled electronically using plant growth data, sensor data and photographs, allowing development of the various microgreen types to be recorded precisely.

How was it financed? And how much funding was required?
The project was funded entirely by C-LED and CEFLA, which is also supporting the industrialisation phase.

What principles is this type of lighting based on?
Plants absorb solar radiation in the 400 – 700 nanometre (nm) range to activate the photosynthesis process. PAR (Photosynthetically Active Radiation) irradiance is measured in energy units of W/m2. Chemical photosynthesis reactions depend closely on the quantity of photons (in the 400 – 700 nm range) absorbed by a surface in a second. This quantity, called PPFD, is measured in µmol m-2s-1.
Light between 400 and 520 nanometres, which includes blue light, promotes the vegetative phase of the plant during which chlorophyll absorbs energy from light, triggering the photosynthesis process and stimulating plant growth and leaf production. Light between 610 and 700 nanometres includes red light and coincides with the peak period of light absorption, which aids flowering and subsequent fruiting.

What kind of energy savings can we expect compared to traditional cultivation?
In a greenhouse for off-season tomato growing, irrigated and illuminated as per the research protocol, it’s possible to boost productivity by 30% compared to normal cultivation. Moreover, the system requires no chemical agents or weed killers and increases product quality while reducing environmental impact. Growing products closer to their final point of sale and consumption limits transport requirements and, again, reduces environmental impact thanks to the reduced circulation of heavy goods vehicles. In the case of completely indoor, out-of-soil cultivation, there are also savings in terms of occupied farming land. For some customers, InStore-Growing™ might allow direct, indoor cultivation in the shop or kitchen, providing evident benefits in terms of product freshness and environmental sustainability.

The press release talked about boosting tomato output in natural greenhouses. How much of an increase should we expect over a year?
We’ve calculated that annual productivity increases would be in the order of 30% and would allow out-of-season picking, at present not possible.

After tomatoes, what sort of fruit and vegetables might LEDs be used with?
Our research puts emphasis on microgreens and small fruits and, in general, varieties with clear health and wellbeing benefits. Red cabbage, in fact, has well-known anti-tumour and bone protection qualities as it is rich in antioxidants, nutrients, vitamins and minerals. It also tastes delicious. In gastronomy, cultivating such plants is only a recent development, but one that is becoming ever-more popular – and we have a key role to play by contributing our considerable skills and leading the way. With other types of cultivation the only limits are those posed by the plant’s size. Tomatoes, for example, can only be grown in greenhouses because they need space on a scale that would be unthinkable in a retail outlet. So when it comes to on-the-shelf growing, it’s simpler to think in terms of lettuce, aromatic plants and small fruits, which can be displayed in the retail outlet in two different ways. In the first solution, the tray grown in the growing unit is closed by a worker and placed in a sales area. The consumer takes the tray containing the plants (still rooted in their substrate) home, where they are cut and eaten. In the second solution, the customer goes to an area of the shop where there’s a small greenhouse containing, for example, aromatic plants or lettuce. Here, consumers are free to choose and cut products as they please, pop them in a bag and then take them home.

How about growing fruit and veg in the home? What sort of herbs, fruit and vegetables might be suitable?
With home growing, the only limitations are those posed by the availability of space. For domestic production we’re probably thinking in terms of plants that grow no higher than 30 cm. In addition to horticulture, another home growing trend regards so-called ‘green wall’ solutions, which have a considerable aesthetic impact and provide health benefits. Plants, in fact, can regulate humidity levels and have a positive impact in terms of air quality and even soundproofing. In this case LED lighting aids proper plant development, even in areas where there is little natural sunlight

Talking of costs, how much would a medium size system cost roughly? What sort of advantages would growers who purchase it expect to gain?
Every solution we propose is custom-made and calibrated to suit the type of plant and the customer’s specific needs. That means system costs can vary considerably. We work together with customers to ensure that all investments are profitable, doing so by assessing both improvements to productivity and cost savings where they are already using non-LED light sources.

The Distant Future of C-LED is a green opportunity for Growing