The future of cannabis lighting technology: Q&A with ex-NASA researcher Neil Yorio

By John Schroyer

Neil Yorio began his professional career working for NASA, researching more efficient ways to grow plants in space.

Now Yorio is digging into more earthbound matters – namely, studying how light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can optimize plant yields for cannabis.

After 20 years of research on LEDs, Yorio turned to the private sector. In 2014 he helped found BIOS Lighting, a Florida company that serves agriculture companies. He’s vice president of lighting research. About half of BIOS’ business comes from marijuana companies.

Marijuana Business Daily spoke with Yorio to learn why he sees LEDs as vastly superior to other lighting technologies available to marijuana growers.

What do you see as the future of lighting for commercial cannabis production?

It’s LED. There’s no other option. There are a lot of other lighting technologies being used that are very energy inefficient and have other negative aspects. Right now, the dominant technology in the cannabis industry is high-pressure sodium, and HPS has several negative attributes. It produces a lot of light plants can’t use. That’s very wasteful.

And HPS technology contains mercury. With the many, many thousands of HPS lamps out there it’s creating tons of hazardous waste. It’s a risk that’s introduced in growing environments. If you break a lamp in a grow that mercury is contaminating your crop. And that crop, if it’s cannabis, is supposed to be medicine. So you’re contaminating medicine with mercury.

Are LEDs ready for prime time? I’ve heard mixed reviews from growers. 

That’s a question I get all the time. First, a number of LED purveyors – people who have identified different LED products – are unaware of the specific needs of plants for lighting. So they get an LED fixture, slap a new label on it and call it a grow light. Then they make claims about its performance that are egregiously incorrect, saying, for example, a 200-watt LED is equivalent to a 1,000-watt HPS lamp. It’s not. So the growers will test LEDs, thinking there’s this huge promise of energy savings and improved yield and quality and reduced cost. And they get a huge decrease in yield because of the light output of these inferior LEDs.

What is the biggest obstacle for LEDs making a breakthrough in the cannabis market?

It’s an educational process that’s improving by the day. It’s what I call “overcoming the LED black eye syndrome.” Many people have tried it. And many people have had a very bad experience with it because they weren’t aware of the performance comparison to HPS, and the fact that many, many manufacturers are producing an inefficient product, claiming that it’s something that it’s not. A lot of people have been burned by LEDs.

Today, there are two or three manufacturers that make LED fixtures that are appropriately designed and sized for these light levels that are equivalent to or greater than that of HPS.

Energy cost savings are a big motivator for a lot of growers with LEDs. Can you tell me about that?

We’re able to produce equivalent or greater amounts of light delivered to the crop canopy using an LED approach versus an HPS approach, while using up to 50% less electricity. Just in using the light we’re able to use 40% less electricity. The amount of light is very important in determining the crop yield.

The other portion of it comes from the reduction of heat. The heat that’s produced in a grow facility is directly related to the amount of wattage being consumed in that facility. So if I reduce the wattage of my fixture by 40%, that means I’m reducing the heat by that amount. And, roughly speaking, for every three watts of heat that’s generated you need one watt to remove that heat through an HVAC system. So by reducing the wattage by 40% to get that light, I’m also getting another 12% or 13% less electricity to remove the heat. So 40 plus 12 or 13, and that’s where you get roughly 50% electricity savings.

How much would it cost to outfit a 30,000-square-foot warehouse with LEDs?

The LED cost is roughly three times that of an HPS fixture. But we find that based on the energy savings and the modest increase in yield, about 5%-10%, the ROI (return on investment) is typically about nine to 12 months for an LED setup. That means the savings and increased revenue in yield pay for the lights within a year.

The maintenance costs of HPS also begin to accumulate along with energy costs. You’re changing lamps every six months to a year at $100 a lamp. After five years, the energy savings and the maintenance costs show that the LED solution actually costs you $1,000 less than HPS. The overall operating costs are significantly reduced because LEDs last so long. The product we’ve designed will last for longer than 50,000 hours, and that’s 11.4 years at 12 hours a day.

Do you have any sense if companies across the country are converting to LEDs? Or is there a lot of hesitancy to use LEDs over HPS, metal halide or other options?

We’ve always been challenged with, “How does it compare to HPS?” Nowadays, when you talk to people it’s, “Which LED do I choose?” So there’s been a fundamental shift of people really starting to embrace it and see it as the future. But many people are still very hesitant, just because of the overwhelming negative experience people have had with underperforming LED products.

Any suggestions for cultivators who want to learn more about how to best use LEDs? 

There’s a really good book written by Christopher Sloper: “The LED Grow Book.” It’s particularly geared for home growers, but it still has all the right information in it.

Another tip for growers: Don’t be fooled by misinformation that’s prevalent on manufacturer specifications. There’s a lot of it out there. It’s mainly about educating yourself on how different lighting technologies compare with each other.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]

5 comments on “The future of cannabis lighting technology: Q&A with ex-NASA researcher Neil Yorio
  1. Eric Jensen on

    “And HPS technology contains mercury. With the many, many thousands of HPS lamps out there it’s creating tons of hazardous waste.” I never worked for NASA, but I have two engineering degrees directly in illumination engineering and 20 years direct experience in the lighting industry. There are nominally 67 quadrabajillion HPS lamps in street lighting, parking lot lighting, manufacturing. Mercury, mercury, mercury. Crap, crap, crap. There is more mercury in the fish the average American eats IN AN ENTIRE YEAR than there is in one “light bulb”.

    Reply
  2. Brett Roper on

    I am hopeful that the future for grow technology will include an efficient (in terms of cost versus #’s created) LED solution but to my knowledge (and since the article did not name manufacturers of the two or three noted) there is not an cost efficient alternative to the DE lamp systems. We are now seeing 3+ pounds a light in test beds (4’x8′ with three DE lamps over 8 plants) with 5+ turns a year which I know is not yet able to be duplicated with the current LED fixtures I am aware of (600+ grams per square foot per year in flower canopy yields, dried cured) … but still I remain hopeful. If someone can show me these results with an LED (verified and not just a claim), I will certainly reconsider the state of the industry.

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  3. George Buzzetti on

    I am the former Director of Policy for CORE-CA. We were looking at LED’s for our potential 90,000 sq ft. facility in L.A. in which we were looking at a dollar a year. Unfortunately, someone else got the building at the last minute in politics.

    One thing is sure. Nothing beats LED’s for efficiency and cost over the long run. We were also looking at putting in solar on the entire roof to run the LED’s and whatever else we had the power for. The system we were going to put in is the most advanced using aquaculture and plants in a continuous cycle system fully filtered. To do aquaculture you need a large facility. I wonder how this would work with growing marijuana as the fish are real income and the supply of nutrients for the plants. Think of the possibilities.

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