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Harvesting of red light accelerates plant growth

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

UbiQD’s quantum dot-enabled retrofit greenhouse film, UbiGro, has been deployed above a row of towering tomato plants in a commercial greenhouse in New Mexico. (COURTESY of UBIQD)

A Los Alamos startup’s quantum dots that emit red light could rake in plenty of green for greenhouse growers.

That’s according to the global market research firm Frost & Sullivan, which this month bestowed its 2019 New Product Innovation Award on UbiGro, a new window film for greenhouses created by New Mexico-based Ubiquitous Quantum Dots, or UbiQD Inc.

Frost & Sullivan called UbiGro a “first-ever product” that offers a “huge disruption” in the greenhouse lighting industry by providing producers with a low-cost, drop-in solution to substantially accelerate plant growth and increase crop yields.

“UbiQD’s reliable product has fascinated customers by providing a leading-edge, but simple-to-deploy, technology that tailors the natural light spectrum to perfectly support crop health, dramatically improving both the growth cycle and production rate,” said Frost & Sullivan in its report explaining the award.

That’s a huge endorsement for a small New Mexico startup that launched in 2014 with technology licensed from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The company uses a low-cost, nontoxic process for making quantum dots, which are tiny, three-dimensional structures that manipulate light in unique ways. They’re used in everything from transistors and sunscreen to LCD televisions, tablets and smart phones.

Quantum dot development

UbiQD has been developing quantum dots as a window coating that captures sunlight, then channels the photons to photovoltaic cells on window frames to turn everyday windows into solar electric generators.

While exploring window coatings for greenhouse generation, the company began to consider helping growers improve crop yield, since quantum dots can be structured to specifically emit red light.

That grew into UbiGro, which the company released in November 2018 as its first commercial product.

UbiGro film, which users install above plants in a greenhouse, shifts sunshine into a red-light emitting spectrum that mimics late-summer sun year-round. That’s considered the most potent time of year for plants, because they sense winter coming and grow faster.

Coinciding with the Frost & Sullivan award, UbiQD released its first full study this month of results from pilot projects at commercial greenhouses in New Mexico, California and Oregon.

The study showed that UbiGro helped boost tomato yields at Growing Opportunities Farm, which operates a hydroponic greenhouse in Alcalde, by 20.5%.

It boosted cannabis production at Little Hill Cultivators farm in Trinity County, California, by 5.4%, and by 7.7% at Frontier Farms, a licensed recreational cannabis farm in Hood River, Oregon.

Product proof

“We partnered with expert growers in their respective markets to validate the benefit of the UbiGro product, and these first studies illustrate their success,” said UbiGro chief product officer Matt Bergren.

The study also estimated the impact on revenue and profits from the increased yields demonstrated in the pilot projects, taking into account the cost of UbiGro film and the extra labor and marketing efforts needed to handle higher plant yields.

Extrapolating the data out annually with UbiGro applied throughout the entire greenhouse, the study projected an extra $15,247 in increased tomato yields for the Alcalde operation, meaning an additional $12,807 in annual net profit.

For the California cannabis operation, that came to $12,600 more in annual revenue if UbiGro was used throughout the single greenhouse that housed the original pilot project, with $8,170 in additional net profit. But if the farm adopted the UbiGro technology across all six of its greenhouses and the yield improvement demonstrated in the pilot remained consistent, it would generate $49,000 in additional annual net profit.

For the Oregon farm, which operates 40 greenhouses, UbiGro use on all operations could yield $320,000 per year in additional profits, according to the study.

Short payback time

“The payback time for installing UbiGro is less than a year for all these operations,” said UbiQD founder and CEO Hunter McDaniel, who helped develop the quantum dot technology as a post-doc at LANL. “Taking everything into account, we think the study shows it’s a slam dunk investment.”

UbiQD has additional on-site trials in other states and countries, including Spain and the Netherlands.

“We have more than 30 trials underway,” McDaniel said. “Growers are data-minded – they want to see how new technology will impact profitability – and we’re validating the benefits with growers around the world.”

The company has moved into large scale production, with economies of scale allowing it to lower the cost for UbiGro this month from $10 per square foot when it launched last year to $3 now. That will help customers achieve the promised payback time of less than one grow season, Bergren said.

Los-Alamos made

The company makes its quantum dot coating at a 9,000-square-foot facility in Los Alamos. A subcontract manufacturer produces the UbiGro rolls.

“We’re pushing into more aggressive sales and marketing given the new validating data we just released,” McDaniel said. “We’re focused now on engaging as many growers as we can to gain commercial traction.”

UbiQD is still developing its electric-generating window coating, which it expects to deploy in pilot projects next year.

The company currently employs 13 people. To date, it has received $6.5 million in grants and private investment.

Its UbiGro product won the South by Southwest pitch competition in Austin last March.

NM startup’s quantum dots offer huge boost in plant productivity

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