NASA’s plan to eventually grow vegetables on the moon or Mars could get a significant boost from quantum-dot technology developed by Los Alamos-based startup UbiQD.
That’s what a NASA-funded study at the University of Arizona showed when applying UbiQD’s greenhouse film covering over lettuce crops grown in a controlled environment. Preliminary study results – published in January by Nature Research in its Communications Biology journal – showed a 13% jump in dry edible lettuce volume using orange light, and 9% improvement with red light, generated by UbiQD’s film covering dubbed “UbiGro.”
The study, which began in 2018, aims to develop a prototype greenhouse for crews of astronauts to grow food during extended stays in space. The first phase of research at the university’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center focused on lettuce, considered a high nutrition, fast-growing option for space missions.
The study’s second phase, now underway, will study UbiGro’s impact on tomatoes as well, while also testing UbiQD technology to collect sunlight on the lunar or Mars surface and channel it to an underground greenhouse, where UbiGro would convert it to a different color spectrum for optimal growth.
UbiQD is already selling UbiGro for terrestrial greenhouse operations, backed by company studies that show 5% to 20% jumps in yield depending on the crop. But publication of the NASA study results in a peer-reviewed journal adds a new level of validity that could boost UbiGro sales on Earth, said UbiQD founder and CEO Hunter McDaniel.
“It’s a validating moment,” McDaniel said. “The study shows it actually works.”
Gene Giacomelli, biosystems engineering professor and former founding director of the university’s agriculture center, said the study results are a “win-win” for terrestrial and space applications.
“This technology can change light from less-efficient wavelengths to more efficient wavelengths that can make plants grow better, bigger and faster,” Giacomelli said. “… NASA can use it for future applications in space, and we get a new technology to aid growers here on Earth.”
UbiGro film is made with quantum dots, which are tiny, three dimensional structures that manipulate light in unique ways, bending sunshine into different colors. They’re currently used in everything from transistors and sunscreen to LCD televisions, tablets and smartphones.
The NASA study and journal publication could help alter mainstream belief that only quantity of light matters in plant growth, McDaniel said.
“The study showed that different light spectrum produce substantial changes in yield,” McDaniel said. “That means the quality of light is almost equally as important as quantity.”
Researchers are now studying the effects of different light colors to choose the best spectrums for plant growth.
UbiQD received $825,000 in Small Business Technology Transfer grants from NASA for the study’s first two phases, plus a $100,000 matching grant in January from the state Economic Development Department to further develop commercial applications for UbiQD technology.