New greenhouse lighting helps researchers’ urgent need for speed

New greenhouse lighting helps researchers’ urgent need for speed
New greenhouse lighting helps researchers’ urgent need for speed

As a plant breeder, Milcah Kigoni faces enemies every season. Pests. Disease. Weather. But her most relentless nemesis is time.

New lights in the University of Illinois Plant Care Facilities give her and other researchers leverage to develop better plant varieties faster to help feed the world’s growing population. The drama is real.

“We’re working against time. With climate change, we have no time to spare,” says Kigoni, a Department of Crop Sciences graduate student. She plans to bring what she’s learning back to her homeland of Kenya.

The new light emitting diode (LED) lights facilitate speed breeding, which helps Kigoni get new lines of oats to mature faster. Safely increasing light exposure from 16 to 22 hours a day means she and her colleagues can field test and confirm successes in one year instead of two.

“With the new lights, we can get to F4 quickly,” Kigoni says, explaining F4 is an ideal generation of a new plant line that’s ready for the critical first round of field testing. “The benefit of the new lighting is such a big plus for us.”

The new lights illuminate more than 55,000 square feet of greenhouse space near Turner Hall dedicated to plant growth and research. Purchasing and installing the lights cost about $575,000.

It’s worth the investment, says Doug Wolters, senior director of operations in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).

“The more than 600 new LED fixtures provide an estimated annual utility cost savings of approximately $95,000,” he says, adding the lights should last about 20 years. “Plus, we estimate the project will reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions by 637,623 kgCO2.” 

The old High-Intensity Discharge (HID) lights were inefficient. And produced heat that singed plants, negatively impacting research.

“With the new setup, the plant response is what we’d like to see. The light gets down nicely into the canopy, and the white light with extended spectrum mimics natural outside light,” says Rosalie Metallo, Plant Care Facilities coordinator. “We look forward to improved crop health and continued energy savings for the future.”

High school students considering careers focused on the environment can find impactful courses, experiments and more at the College of ACES.

“I love sharing with young people how research is applied at ACES and how we can easily integrate our findings into day-to-day activities to benefit farmers and researchers. ACES offers a multidisciplinary and nurturing environment for curious minds that truly want to improve the conditions of their communities,” says Juan Arbelaez, crop sciences assistant professor and Kigoni’s faculty advisor.

Arbelaez worked closely with Megan Choo, a recent ACES graduate who played a key role in spring oats speed breeding using the new, energy-efficient lights.

With a knowing laugh, Kigoni warns future students they’re likely to get hooked.

“Young people see a problem as serious as climate change and ask, ‘What can I do to help?’” she says. “The work we do can be both rewarding and frustrating, but it’s certainly addictive.”