Edmonton startup’s simulated sunlight aims to help producers grow more food with less energy

Sunlight, water and nutrients, in varying degrees depending on the plant, are the foundation of all plant life, but if you want to see them really grow, one University of Alberta graduate says threaten them with a little shade.

Michael Taschuk, founder of G2V Optics, explained plants growing in a field are always competing with each other for sunlight, so if a neighbour starts growing over them, plants can actually “see” this optically.

“There’s a change in the quality of the red light that they observe, so they will grow taller and they will grow bigger,” said Taschuk.

“That’s what we do with our lighting—we can mimic that light that they would interpret as shading so that they grow bigger.”

This “Engineered Sunlight™” is at the heart of a food security revolution aimed at finding ways to produce more food with less energy, often in extreme settings.

And not unlike the plants they grow, it is a crowded field of scientists hunting for the next breakthrough.

Innovation rooted in U of A research

That’s why Taschuk and his G2V team have never strayed very far from their U of A roots.

Taschuk, who spent 20 years moving from undergrad to PhD being trained as an optics and electronics researcher, previously collaborated with engineering professor Mike Brett and chemistry professor Jillian Buriak, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Nanomaterials for Energy, to build organic photovoltaic devices. 

“Through the course of that collaboration, it became clear that there was an opportunity as LEDs developed to mimic sunlight really precisely, and then make a really good test instrument for the work that Jillian and her group were doing around solar cells,” said Taschuk.

“There are colours beyond what humans can see, both in the ultraviolet and into the infrared, which solar cells and plants care about.”

More recently, Taschuk joined forces with R. Glen Uhrig, a plant functional genomics professor in the Faculty of Science, who is studying the interaction of plants and light.

And like the first collaboration that helped launch G2V, Uhrig made an immediate impact.

“Glen took a look at our lights and found a mechanism to decrease the energy costs by 30 per cent,” said Taschuk. “Plants grow 30 per cent better if you get the lighting right.

“This is just game-changing for vertical farms, or indoor farming under controlled environment agriculture, as you can imagine.

“Without any additional inputs, we were getting 30 per cent more plant yield.”

Now, G2V Optics and the Uhrig Lab have been awarded a joint Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada Alliance grant and an Alberta Innovates Campus Alberta Small Business Engagement grant totalling $720,000 over two years to research light’s impact on the genetic response and phenotype of horticulturally relevant plants.

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