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Dec. 17, 2020

Plant science in a new light

Michigan State’s research greenhouses are bringing in LED technology, an eye-catching, pink upgrade that saves energy, money

What do you get when you mix some green and white plant science with Spartan sustainability and teamwork? The answer, it turns out, is pink greenhouses.


Working with the university’s Infrastructure Planning and Facilities, the MSU Plant Science Research Greenhouse Facility installed colored LEDs inside two of its greenhouse ranges to cut energy consumption, save money and power research that’s helping Michigan’s farms and farmers.


“This project combines this special group of people to bring new technology on campus,” said Erik Runkle, a professor in the Department of Horticulture and an MSU Extension specialist. “With IPF, we’re bringing a cost and energy savings to campus along with benefits to science as well.”

Pink LEDs give an entire greenhouse a bright pink glow on a dark night.
Red and white LEDs have this MSU research greenhouse glowing pink. Photo by Derrick L. Turner.

Runkle has been studying LEDs in plant-growing operations since 2010. Back then, though, no greenhouse would have used the lights. The technology was too primitive and inefficient for the price, he said. But that’s changing now.


“I wouldn’t say the adoption is widespread yet, but it’s gained traction and implementation is increasing,” Runkle said.


Light-emitting diodes use less energy than conventional bulbs. Some emit specific colors while others emit white light. Red fixtures are the most efficient at converting electricity into the light plants use for photosynthesis, Runkle said. Plants also need a gentle splash of blue light, which is provided by a smaller number of white LEDs. The red and white mixture create the greenhouses’ pink glow.

“There’s really a super strong sense of collaboration, of working toward making the greenhouses as good as we can with the resources we have.” - Chrislyn Particka

As an extension specialist, Runkle is communicating the benefits of the lights with Michigan growers, who drive the third most lucrative greenhouse crop industry in the U.S. As co-chair of MSU’s greenhouse faculty user’s committee with University Distinguished Professor Tom Sharkey, Runkle is helping the Spartan greenhouse team lead by example.


The team began work to install LEDs in one greenhouse in 2019, taking advantage of a special IPF fund that is supported by rebates from previous work. When IPF updates old equipment with more energy-efficient systems at MSU, the group typically gets rebates from utility companies. Those rebates then go into the fund to help pay for future purchases that promote sustainability. The greenhouse’s LED project was a perfect use case, said Guy Halsey, an electrical engineer with IPF’s Planning, Design and Construction group.

Beyond covering much of the cost of the new lighting system, IPF also worked with the greenhouse team to make sure the relatively old facilities could handle the new technology.

LED light fixtures hang above rows of plants, shining down pink light, still visible through a greenhouse's siding on a sunny day with clear blue skies.
More light means more plant growth, which LEDs can provide at a fraction of the energy used by older, more conventional lights. Photo by Derrick L. Turner.

“You just see the pink light, but it took a lot of effort, design and engineering to support the system,” Halsey said. “And it turned out great. It’s a winner.”


The newly installed lights use less than half the energy of their predecessors, saving thousands of dollars annually.


“Stewardship comes naturally to us,” Halsey said. “This is our home and we really want to do what’s right for our campus. It feels good to participate in an effort that directly affects something that’s important to our researchers and our students.”


“The support we’ve gotten from all areas of IPF has really made a difference in how successful we’ve been able to be,” said Chrislyn Particka, director of the MSU Plant Science Research Greenhouse Facility. “There’s really a super strong sense of collaboration, of working toward making the greenhouses as good as we can with the resources we have.”


A masked Chrislyn Particka, director of the MSU Plant Science Research Greenhouse Facility, stands in front of rows of green plants and a small group of students and faculty working in a greenhouse lighted by red and white LEDs.
Chrislyn Particka is the director of the MSU Plant Science Research Greenhouse Facility that’s managing the installation of the LED fixtures. Photo by Derrick L. Turner.

With the success of the project, the research greenhouses elected to install additional LEDs in a greenhouse that grows wheat. “We chose the wheat breeding program because they have a lot of lights and they run them 22 hours a day,” Particka said.


If that sounds like a lot, it is. But 22-hour days let researchers grow their wheat really, really fast.


“In the greenhouse, we can go through about three years in a single year,” said Eric Olson, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences.


Olson and his team are selectively breeding wheat to beef up the plant’s genetics, making it more resilient to disease, for example, without compromising its yield. But it takes a few iterations or generations to assess the results of the breeding.


“It would take about four years conventionally,” Olson said. “Speed breeding and controlled greenhouse environments take it down to 18 months.”


Speed breeding doesn’t need LEDs, but the LEDs let the Spartans use half the energy and much less money to develop wheat that will be valuable to farmers and help improve national food security.

Graduate student Melissa Winchester and her adviser Eric Olson, both wearing masks, examine wheat plants illuminated by pink lighting from LEDs.
Melissa Winchester (left), a graduate student in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Science, examines wheat growing under LEDs with her adviser Eric Olson (right). Photo by Derrick L. Turner.

“I do what I do to help farmers keep farming. That’s number one for the program,” said Olson, who grew up in a farming community in Wisconsin. And he counts himself lucky to do that work at MSU with his students, his leadership and his colleagues like Particka. “She has great ideas and the team to implement them. They’re focused on helping MSU researchers achieve the best possible research outcomes.”


Larry Thayer, the greenhouse electrician, installed the wheat breeding LEDs and helped install a few more for researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture who have joint appointments on campus. And IPF is always available to lend a hand.


The team hopes to continue installing LEDs and making further upgrades to the greenhouses in the coming years with support from the university and the state of Michigan. The pandemic has changed the timetable for those projects, but the commitment to the greenhouses and the university’s role in supporting plant science research remains strong.


“The pandemic has delayed the potential timeline, but greenhouse renovations remain important to the university,” Particka said. “MSU has world-class plant science researchers, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to bring changes to the greenhouses to better support their work.”


So, although it’s difficult to forecast when more LEDs will be added to the greenhouses, it’s clear that these lights are the future. For now, two of MSU’s greenhouses are windows into that future — a couple of hot pink bright spots, rays of sunshine, during increasingly cloudy days.

By: Matt Davenport and Derrick L. Turner