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Looking for leaks, ‘tweaking sunlight’

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Two local tech companies were among three in New Mexico awarded $100,000 New Mexico Small Business Innovation Research grants, providing recipients with additional resources to commercialize their technology.

UbiQD in Los Alamos is an advanced materials company powering product innovations in agriculture. Using technology called quantum dots that are sprayed onto a film, the spectrum of harmful UV sunlight can be shifted to plant-friendly orange luminescence, encouraging more efficient greenhouse growth, increasing yield from 5% to 20%.

And Santa Fe-based Mesa Photonics has created a ground-based remote sensor for measuring variations in humidity from the ground up to altitudes as high as 50,000 feet; it is used to improve weather forecasting and to better understand the climate.

Both companies will use the matching local funds to expand their technology to create better commercialization opportunities.

“These companies have proven that innovation thrives in New Mexico. The products they have developed will disrupt markets,” said Alicia J. Keyes, New Mexico Economic Development Department cabinet secretary. “The state assistance is helping these businesses grow faster and create the higher-paying jobs we need to diversify the economy.”

The companies “are prime examples of innovations, born right here in New Mexico, that started from a patent, developed a product, and are well on their way to commercializing their technology,” said Myrriah Tomar, director of the state Office of Science and Technology.

While the basic premise behind Mesa Photonics’ initial technology is solid for humidity, it has fairly limited commercial opportunities as it is primarily a scientific research tool, said David Bomse, company president.

But the same technology can be used to trace methane gas, which is where the commercial applications open up, Bomse said.

“Methane is the main constituent of natural gas,” he said. “The market for looking for natural gas leakage is much bigger and we can adapt the technology to the measurement of natural gas leakage. You put the thing on the ground and it can measure the amount of methane in the air at different altitudes.”

It’s estimated that about 3% to 5% of natural gas is lost during the collection process, Bomse said.

“You can say that billions of dollars a year literally evaporates into thin air,” he said. “So, that’s a financial incentive. But, more importantly from my perspective as a father with children, the second-biggest cause of global warming is methane gas behind carbon dioxide. These losses can have a really big impact on global warming, so that’s a much bigger deal.”

It is possible the company could have a working prototype in the field by summer and, depending on COVID-19 fallout, commercialization by the end of the year, Bomse said. A lot hinges on when trade shows are scheduled again, he said.

For UbiQD, a commercial product is already on the market for production greenhouse growers, but company officials are working on the efficiency of their product as different plants grow better under different lighting situations, said Hunter McDaniel, UbiQD founder and CEO.

Much of that research falls under a $750,000 grant the company received from NASA, he said, while the New Mexico grant will help with such things as building partnerships, product marketing, educating potential end-users, attendance at trade shows and legal fees associated with intellectual property rights.

“These are all important things to spend money on,” McDaniel said. “But they’re not things that the federal grant covers, so the state steps in and helps support that part of it.”

The company already is conducting plant research in Arizona and New Mexico to determine which color filters help which types of plants the most, he said.

“Tomato plants to pepper plants to cannabis, each can respond differently to different input, so we’re trying to learn as much as we can,” McDaniel said.

“Different plants respond to different colors (of the spectrum). Rose plants like more green in the spectrum. Tomatoes, magenta. Peppers have a little bit of yellow. It can even change in the different life cycles of the plants. There’s a lot of research happening that we’re trying to learn from and apply in film format. We’re tweaking sunlight.”