Could quantum dots reduce the cost of indoor farming?

Plants need light to grow, and when sunlight isn’t enough (like on Mars or in many indoor farms and greenhouses across the world), farmers’ only option is to use electric light fixtures, “grow lights”. Some indoor or greenhouse farmers use a mix of grow lights and sunlight, like in greenhouses that are outfitted with electric lights. 

Therefore, scientists and engineers across the world have been seeking ways to grow crops more efficiently with novel lighting technologies. One team of scientists from the University of Arizona has recently tested quantum dots to see if this microscopic technology could make growing food on Earth and Mars more efficient.

Quantum dots are synthetic crystals that are only a few nanometers across, comparable in size to the width of a DNA strand. They are a relatively new technology, and their uses are still being explored. In the research team’s recently published paper, ‘Optimizing spectral quality with quantum dots to enhance crop yield in controlled environments', they performed experiments to see whether quantum dots could improve light for farming.

In their paper, the scientists describe quantum dots as arranged in a sheet embedded in a resin film. When light shines through this film, the light particles (photons) are slowed down, and the color of the light changes. There are many types of quantum dots that create a rainbow of different colors, but this research uses quantum dots that can change ultraviolet radiation into red or orange light.

Why does this help the plants? Plants can capture energy from many colors of light, but they cannot use energy from ultraviolet radiation. By turning ultraviolet radiation into red or orange light, these scientists are making “unusable” light into “usable” light for plants. This “light filtering” quantum dot technique could potentially improve yields in greenhouses–that is, if it actually works.

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