15th September 2020

Printed Electronics Now Q&A: Nanosys, UbiQD Bringing Quantum Dots to Agriculture

Converting the sun’s energy with quantum dots can lead to vigorous flowering and fruit production.

Editor’s Note: Quantum dots (QD) are making headway in numerous fields, most notably TVs and displays. There has been talk about using QD for agriculture, as the ability to use specific wavelengths can enhance growth. It is a sizable market: The greenhouse cover film market is estimated to be more than 50 billion square feet globally or 20 times more area than the display industry.

In May 2020, UbiQD, Inc., a specialist in advanced materials for a range of fields including agriculture, and Nanosys, Inc., a QD leader, announced their partnership on UbiGro luminescent greenhouse films. Consumer electronics brands have shipped more than 20 million devices from tablets to monitors and TVs based on Nanosys' proprietary quantum dot technology as of 2020.

Installed above plants in a greenhouse, UbiGro uses fluorescence to convert under-utilized portions of sunlight to more photosynthetically efficient orange light. UbiQD notes that pilot customers in the US and Europe are reporting higher production yields and improved harvests. In this Q&A, Jeff Yurek, Nanosys’ director of marketing, and Hunter McDaniel, UbiQD founder and CEO, discuss the possibilities for quantum dots in the world of agriculture.

Printed Electronics Now: What led Nanosys to see an opportunity for its quantum dot technology for agricultural benefits?

Jeff Yurek: The inspiration really came from UbiQD. They developed a new type of cadmium-free quantum dot-based on copper indium sulfide and founded UbiQD to commercialize it in 2014.

Hunter McDaniel: I’ve been a big fan of Nanosys for a long time, and have kept in touch with Jason (Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove) over the years. UbiQD’s traction in agriculture got to a point where we needed to make a tough decision to either raise more capital in order to build out manufacturing capacity, or partner. I’ve worked hard to build a capital-efficient business, and so the choice to partner was an easy one.

Regarding our internal focus on agriculture, it was born out of a passion to have a big impact. Our new class of QDs uniquely enables large area, sunlight exposed use cases (due to safety, cost and stability). What better opportunity to have an impact is there than food and energy? We had been working on solar windows with QD-tinted glass for a number of years, and in 2016 we realized that greenhouses could be a great first market for our technology.

Printed Electronics Now: Along those lines, how do quantum dots benefit plant growth?

Jeff Yurek: Quantum dots have this amazing ability to be tuned to convert and emit light at any wavelength in the visible spectrum. For TVs, this means we can perfectly reproduce the red, green and blue colors required by broadcast standards for accurate color. There are many other interesting applications for this colorful capability and agriculture is one.

Plants only use certain portions of sunlight spectrum. For example, plants appear green to our eye because they reflect the green portion of the spectrum. Recent research has shown that plants respond differently to different portions of the visible spectrum. Tuning the spectrum of light a plant sees can affect its growth rate, how fast it flowers and ultimately, its crop yield. One way that farmers have been exploiting this is by using “magenta” colored LEDs (blue + red) in indoor farming applications. This allows them to maximize plant growth while minimizing energy waste- why spend energy producing green light if the plant won’t use it? UbiQD’s insight was that we can do the same thing, except with zero power, in greenhouses by converting the sun’s energy with quantum dots.

Hunter McDaniel: Yep, I think Jeff got that right. UbiGro is our agriculture brand, and we describe it as a ‘layer of light’ that helps plants get more from the sun. It uses fluorescence to create a more optimal greenhouse spectrum. As Jeff noted, spectrum affects the efficiency of photosynthesis, but it also can trigger plant responses that you might want, like more vigorous flowering and fruit production. You can do this today with artificial lighting, but that is a very cost and energy-intensive way to grow plants. Anyways, it’s nearly impossible to artificially create the full intensity of sunlight. Our approach is to tweak sunlight, make it more potent for photosynthesis, but also to trigger plant responses. Ultimately it’s about better crop outcomes for the grower.

Printed Electronics Now: How are the initial results?

Jeff Yurek: The initial results are really exciting. UbiQD has conducted more than 50 trials at 17 unique greenhouse sites, including five US states and seven international greenhouses. In one case they showed over 20% yield improvement for tomato growth. That’s quite significant.

Hunter McDaniel: We have shared data from a number of pilots on our website, you can see those here: https://ubigro.com/case-studies. We are in the process of publishing some new data in the coming months, and we’ll be announcing those results soon. In short, we’ve seen great results with tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and strawberries so far. Yield improvements have been as high as about 30% in commercial settings, but also lower in some cases. The payback times are generally less than a year, but it varies by crop type and market. We have seen quality benefits as well, such as reduced waste and enhancing secondary metabolites.

Printed Electronics Now: What do Nanosys and UbiQD, bring to the project?

Jeff Yurek: Nanosys brings scale to the partnership. Delivering technology at scale is crucial in agriculture. We’ve scaled-up quantum dot  manufacturing to meet the needs of the rapidly growing QD display market. Nanosys technology will be deployed in more than 10 million consumer electronics devices this year. We have recently doubled our manufacturing capacity for quantum dots and can produce over 50 tons per year. The agriculture film industry is 20x larger by area than all of the display industry and we’re ready for the challenge.

Hunter McDaniel: Absolutely, Jeff is right on point there. Nanosys brings scale and manufacturing expertise. UbiQD brings greenhouse agriculture domain expertise, years of plant trial data, greenhouse customer relationships, our UbiGro brand and marketing, a new enabling QD material technology, and also intellectual property around this novel
use case.

Printed Electronics Now: Are you seeing opportunities for commercialization in the near term?

Jeff Yurek: Yes! In addition to the trials, UbiQD is selling UbiGro films on its website today.

Hunter McDaniel: Limited quantities of UbiGro are available for sale right now via our website: https://ubiqd.shop/ We are rapidly making progress to bring Nanosys capacity online, and are hoping to be supplying Nanosys-made materials sometime next year.

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