Role of LEDs in Horticulture

While LEDs have revolutionized indoor and exterior lighting methods, they have been revolutionizing operations involving indoor grow facilities. This is mainly because LEDs are highly flexible in their spectral output, while their efficiency is very high. That means they emit much lower heat.

A new standard from ASABE specifies the performance of LED lighting products for horticulture applications. The standard spells out the test methods to measure the optical radiation from LEDs in the range 280-800 nm. Note the visible spectrum covers about 390-700 nm.

According to the Standards and Technical director of ASABE, Scott Cedarquist, in horticultural applications, LED lighting has generated very high levels of interest in their projects in the last 20 years. Therefore, horticultural lighting makes use of several terminologies that are primarily focused on plants. Two of them are PPFD or Photosynthetic Photon Flus Density and PPF or Photosynthetic Photon Flux.

While PPFD measures the number of active photons falling on a surface per unit area per unit of time, PPF is the number of photons created by a lighting system per second.

Horticultural lighting primarily focuses on delivering photons that initiate photosynthesis and other processes in plants. These spur plant development as they excite electrons. Horticultural applications use LED products that are different from those used for general illumination. The difference is primarily that the former has a wider spectral output typical for horticultural applications. This is necessary as different plants respond differently to various wavelengths.

According to academic and industry research, each type of plant has a specific light recipe that helps the plant to yield higher growth in the shortest period. The recipe holds the variation in optical spectra for optimizing the overall growth of the plant, thereby improving desirable plant characteristics. For instance, increasing the potency of cannabis or the flavor of vegetables.

The light output from LEDs has another characteristic. Not only do LEDs provide a precise output spectrum, but this spectrum can also be tuned to optimize the spectrum for different plants and the phases of their life.

LED lighting products are primarily used in horticulture as vertical farms. This is due to the far lower heat output from LEDs as compared to that from other light sources. This allows the LEDs to be interspersed very close to the plants without damaging them. Therefore, facility managers are able to maximize the use of available space. This has made vertical farming very popular in urban areas. Horticulturists are making use of abandoned buildings which they are converting to grow food, thereby making new products available at cheaper rates.

The high efficiency of LEDs also helps considerably in energy savings. However, grow facility managers are more interested in the yield of the crop, and use of LEDs for high-value crops such as cannabis offer revenue increase from higher yield and shorter life cycle, rather than from energy savings. Similarly, more traditional crops such as flowers and leafy vegetables also use LED lighting not for energy savings, but rather for the ability to produce more crops in a shorter period.