LED lighting allows energy consumption to be reduced in the cultivation of tomatoes with assimilation lighting. Even better: energy consumption can be cut in half. Eight PhD candidates and three post-graduate researchers are conducting research as part of the ‘Led it be 50%’ project to achieve this.

‘Switching from high-pressure sodium (SON-T) lamps to LED lighting will result in energy savings of 25% with regard to the conversion of electricity into light. In a few years that will even be 30%, since LEDs are becoming increasingly effective. A more even distribution of light across foliage by suspending LEDs at the right position dispersed throughout the crop will enhance light absorption by 15%.

‘Another variable is the application of different colours of light, which will enable you to control the intensity of the light throughout the day. This should lead to a photosynthesis intensification of 10%. We also want to investigate the possibility of sending relatively more assimilates to the fruit to enable 5% more fruit to be formed with the same photosynthesis level. A total amount of 60% in electricity can be saved on lighting.’

As LEDs produce little heat, will greenhouses require more heating?

‘Net energy savings of 50% are realistic. I don’t think that growers will need to raise their heating quotas, because my theory is based on the idea of crops being cultivated under higher humidity conditions. The humidity can be higher particularly during the night-time, so that less moisture will evaporate from the plants. Vaporisation costs energy, which is why we are seeking ways to cut back on vaporisation and to achieve cultivation under slightly more humid conditions.

‘A low evaporation rate and high humidity conditions allow you to save on heat. That has to compensate for the lack of heat otherwise produced by SON-T lamps.

‘Cultivation under higher humidity conditions, however, increases plants’ susceptibility to mildew and fungi. We hope to enhance the resistance in plants being grown under LED lighting through such measures as the controlled application of red light during the night.

‘We aim to achieve a production increase of 30% with the same amount of light – or the same production levels with 30% less light. But will professional growers opt for these possibilities?’ Marcelis has to smile. This question is reminding him of the introduction of a tomato variety 35 years ago. This variety could be grown at a lower temperature, but when exposed to normal temperature conditions the crop yielded decidedly more fruit. Growers unanimously preferred the latter option. ‘We examine the relationship between the amount of light used and the plant’s response to this. An entrepreneur will decide for himself where his priorities are.’

Is interlighting the answer to a more efficient use of light?

‘Light needs to be absorbed by a plant in order for it to contribute to its growth. Of all the light that shines on a plant from above, 5 to 7% is refracted. This is what you see when you fly over a greenhouse at night with the lighting on. It is not true that a portion of the light is refracted upwards on its own accord. The lamps direct their beams downwards. Another portion of the light is lost because it hits the ground. This is around 5 to 10%. In conclusion, another small portion of light is lost through transmission. This is the light that shines straight through a leaf.

‘The challenge lies in being able to reduce light loss, and to distribute light as evenly as possible. When placed directly beneath the lamps, a plant may receive an excess of light, and placed lower down, it may receive too little. In this case it’s better to consider not only vertical but also horizontal distribution. Interlighting, however, doesn’t solve this problem entirely, but it can cut back this loss considerably. You lose less light to the open sky and the ground.’

Interlighting doesn’t enable light to be projected at a big distance.

‘There is not a lot of light behind a leaf. There must be a way to improve that. Perhaps distribution could be improved with a different shape of leaf. Or you could reduce the size of the lead and experiment with adding colours to the light. I’m certain that much more can be achieved, but this will require a great deal more research.

‘SON-t lamps do not emit their light in a uniformly distributed manner across the crop; most of the light is absorbed by the topmost leaves. With a diffuse distribution improvements of 5% could be achieved.

‘Seventy per cent of all assimilates are absorbed into the fruit. This means that 30% remain inside the plant, but does the plant need this much? Suppose that you can get 75% to the plant through more efficient light control. This is an interesting aspect to take consideration.

‘Placing a diffuse sheet of glass under an SON-T lamp will take away too much light. And even if you make that light diffuse, the reflection remains and you still have less light at the bottom. The question for the industry is: this is what we can do with the sun, now what can you do with the lamp? There are still numerous possibilities with LEDS by placing lenses in front of the light source.

‘Five years from now growers will probably be using a combination of SON-T on top and interlighting in between the crop. But in the end, they will be using LEDs exclusively. I’m not clairvoyant. Perhaps SON-T lighting will make giant strides forward, but there are more development possibilities for LEDs.’

Do plants derive other substances when exposed to LED lighting in comparison to SON-T light?

‘LED lighting directed at the bunch in tomato plants will double the Vitamin C content. This immediately raises new questions for further research: how does that work? What colour light would you need to achieve this? Research on this is currently in full sway. Perhaps this will show us that we can increase other beneficial substances as well. It is doubtful that professional growers will soon be positioning their lighting directly around every bunch of tomatoes, but we do want to discover the principle behind this. Perhaps this will offer growers new possibilities. Everyone can grow tomatoes under diffuse glazing, but if you can grow tomatoes that have a beneficial effect on health, you can distinguish yourself on the market. Specific types of LED lighting could also increase these substances in other crops, such as herbs.’

Plant growth can be influenced by the colour of LED lighting. Marcelis refers to a test conducted on tomatoes in the Wageningen UR test greenhouses incorporating varicoloured LED lighting. Conventional lighting with red and blue light resulted in plants at chest height, while the plants in the test area that were exposed to far-red lighting grew above Marcelis’ head.

‘The research we are conducting should teach us which light combinations will result in optimum production. We are, for instance, also examining the results of applying far-red lighting for short periods during the night. Of all the spectral colours, red is the most efficient. Our knowledge of plant response to LED lighting is, however, still in its infancy.’

The research is funded by the STW technology foundation, LED lamp manufacturer Philips, three seed producing firms (Rijk Zwaan, Nunhems and Bejo), two automation firms (HortiMax and B-Mex), two plant nurseries (Van der Lugt and Westlandse Plantenkwekerij) and Wageningen UR University and Research Centre.

Leo F.M. Marcelis (Elst Gld, 1963) studied horticulture at Wageningen University, where he obtained his PhD in 1994. He was a professor by special appointment of Crop Production in Low-Energy Greenhouses at Wageningen University until 2013 and team leader at Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture. On 1 December 2013 Prof. Dr Leo Marcelis was appointed Professor of Horticulture and Product Physiology at Wageningen University.

Download the complete interview with prof. dr. ir. Leo Marcelis about diffuse glass, LED-lighting, urban farming, de-leafing and the effects on plants, energy consumption and cultivation strategy (login required).

Source/photo: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Theo Brakeboer.