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Space lettuce: It’s what’s for dinner

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A local startup’s quantum dot technology could some day help feed astronauts on the moon and Mars.

Los Alamos-based UbiQD, which is developing quantum dot coatings to help boost greenhouse crop production on Earth, won an initial $125,000 NASA contract to study the technology’s potential application in space. The Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer award will allow UbiQD to work with the University of Arizona to explore using quantum dots to manipulate sunlight for optimized crop growth during space and planetary exploration missions, said UbiQD founder and CEO Hunter McDaniel.

The University of Arizona is working with NASA to build a prototype greenhouse for crews of astronauts to grow food during extended stays in space that could last months or even years.

“We’re partnering with them to see how quantum dots can boost crop growth in the greenhouse,” McDaniel said. “Our technology could be used to collect light on the lunar surface, guide it to the greenhouse, and convert it to the right color, or spectrum, for plant growth.”

The company, which launched in 2014, has developed a low-cost, low-toxic process for making quantum dots that McDaniel helped develop at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Quantum dots are tiny, three dimensional structures that manipulate light in unique ways, absorbing it and emitting it back out in different colors. They’re used for everything from transistors and sunscreen to LCD televisions, tablets and smartphones.

UbiQD, which has raised about $4 million in public and private funding, is developing marketable applications for its quantum dots. That includes electricity-generating coatings for windows, and films placed in greenhouses to shine red light on targeted crops. Plants absorb red light more efficiently than other spectrums, improving growth, said Matt Bergren, UbiQD chief of product .

“We have already been testing the films, in both research and commercial greenhouses in the U.S., and we’ve seen yield improvements for tomatoes on the order of 20 to 30 percent,” Bergren said.

The company has set up a pilot program for tomato production at Growing Opportunities, a farm in Alcalde. It will begin marketing its first quantum-dot film this fall for greenhouse tomatoes.

“It’s a retrofit film that sits above the plant and shifts the light color to a different spectrum to speed crop growth and cycle time,” McDaniel said. “It mimics late-summer sun, known as the most-potent time of year for plants, because they sense that winter is coming and they grow faster. Our film will provide that light spectrum year round.”

In the NASA-backed study, the University of Arizona will test the UbiQD film on lettuce, which researchers consider a high nutrition, fast-growing option for space missions.

Space greenhouses would likely be buried under surface soil to protect them from radiation and harsh conditions, with light collectors on top. UbiQD’s technology can help capture, guide and convert that light to crops, making it a potential “game changer” for indoor crop production, said University of Arizona biosystems engineering professor Gene Giacomelli in a prepared statement.

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