Going to space and growing weed have one major element in common. No, it’s not how high you get. It's LED lights.
Neil Yorio, formerly a researcher at NASA, has taken his expertise preparing for space flight and applied it the craft of growing cannabis and other plants. Yorio. who used to work in NASA's Bio Regenerative Life Support Systems program, is now the vice president of LED agricultural lighting at BIOS, a company that custom engineers LED lights for both human and plant use.
"I was looking at using a plant based life support system for long duration missions into space," Yorio told Motherboard. Remember the character Mark Whitney growing potatoes in space in the movie The Martian? "I was involved in research at NASA, growing plants to keep people alive in that same scenario,” Yorio said.
Having plants in space provides oxygen to the crew, removes the carbon dioxide they exhale, provides food, and purifies water. But because the weight of lifting things off into space was so expensive, the NASA engineers needed to make sure the lighting used to nourish the plants was effective and lightweight—that's where LEDs came in.
"It didn't have glass, it lasts a long time, had the potential to be very energy efficient, and didn't contain any hazardous materials,” Yorio said. And soon enough, LEDs became popular not only for space missions, but for cars, televisions, lamps, and yes, agriculture.
A young sunflower plant onboard the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. Image: NASA/Wikimedia
Yorio told me LED is also the future of lighting for commercial cannabis growing. Often, growers use high-pressure sodium lighting (think orange street lamps) on their plants, which produces a great deal of light the plants can't use, and contains mercury, leading to hazardous waste.
Plants absorb about the same spectrum of light that humans can see with their own eyes. "If you're delivering wavelengths of light outside that range that [the plants] can't use for photosynthesis, you're consuming more electricity to create more light that plants aren't using,” Yorio said.
Meanwhile, LEDs can deliver the same amount of light for 40 percent less electricity, without the wasted light. That's not only more energy efficient, but less expensive overall. Good quality LEDs could cost around $1500 per light, and a 1000 square foot canopy, either in an indoor grow operation or a greenhouse, would need about 62 lights. However, the lights themselves can last over 10 years if a grower uses around 50,000 hours of light, or an average of 12 hours a day, Yorio said.
However, the biggest obstacle to LEDS becoming more widely used among cannabis growers is the lack of education and standards, Yorio said. People need to adjust other factors when they switch to LEDs—LEDs yield lower temperatures so the resulting amount of water and nutrients a plant needs may be affected. And they need to use good quality LEDs for the right results. Once we learn the details, the impact could be revolutionary.
"NASA invested a lot of time and money on these types of research projects to explore bioregenerative life support systems," Yorio said. "Now we, the people who were part of it, have the opportunity to build upon that base of knowledge that is directly applicable to indoor commercial crop production.”
“And cannabis is one of those many crops, just like lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers.”
Learn More: This isn't the first time Motherboard has heard about folks from NASA disrupting the cannabis industry. In 2013 we interviewed a former NASA botanist building hydronic grow boxes.