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12/07/2016

Phytosynthetix Takes the Guess Work Out of the Greenhouse

Walking into the offices of a company called Phytosynthetix, you might expect to be greeted with something that looks like it was lifted out of an action movie set far in the future, but that’s not what you’ll find at this Athens-headquartered unit. Instead of robot assistants, 30-foot tall ceilings and a lot of egg-shaped furniture, you’ll just find Erico Mattos, tucked among laboratories and other startups, and with him possibly the future of indoor agriculture.

A Stroke of Good Fortune

Erico came to Athens from Sao Paulo, Brazil to study Crop and Soil Science due in large part to a good sense of timing. On meeting representatives from the University of Georgia while deciding where to study for his doctorate, Mattos says “They were looking for someone and I had all the requirements at the right time.” During his time in their PhD program, the academic team Erico was part of applied for and was granted two patents for the technologies he was developing.

Drawing from this research, Erico and his co-founder Ryan Hunt began Phytosynthetix with the hypothesis that you could increase a plant’s photosynthetic efficiency by controlling its light supply. One of the ideas was to control crops’ flowering with a mixture of red and far red light. After completing a research project partially funded by a grant from the Center of Innovation for Agribusiness, Erico and his team in partnership with the University of Georgia laboratory of horticultural physiology discovered something they believe to be even more valuable.

Phytosynthetix co-founder Erico Mattos and researcher Dr. Marc van Iersel

Phytosynthetix co-founder Erico Mattos and researcher Dr. Marc van Iersel

Based on a work developed by PhD student Shuyang Zhen and Dr. Marc van Iersel “We found that by adding these different amounts of far red light, the photosynthetic capacity of the plants increases” Erico said.

The Emerson Effect

The reason for this photosynthetic increase, Erico states, is a phenomenon known as the Emerson Effect, which states that plants’ rate of photosynthesis was highest when exposed to both shorter and higher wavelengths of light, concluding that there are two different photosystems involved in photosynthesis.

The Emerson Effect is important to the founding of Phytosynthetix for one main reason: as we increasingly move toward Controlled Environment Agriculture as a viable source of food, there are a myriad of small technical problems that must first be solved. Among these problems is the reality that while white LED lights give off the full visible spectrum of light, they do not emit far red light.

Because of this, Phytosynthetix has set about to create a lighting fixture for controlled-environment spaces that contains both full spectrum LEDs and far red LEDs, increasing the photosynthetic capabilities of any plant that grows under it. And because energy costs currently make it cost-ineffective to grow food indoors on a large scale, Erico and the Phytosynthetix team have shifted their focus to greenhouses.

The Future of Indoor Agriculture

Phytosynthetix is currently testing a supplemental lighting system for greenhouses that senses the amount of available ambient light, and depending on how much or little light is available, supplements it with its system of full spectrum LEDs and far red LEDs.

“In a greenhouse,” Erico says, “they know what they are doing, they know their costs. So introducing a supplemental lighting system, which will work in conjunction with the sun, really drops the costs of running the system.”

By introducing this supplemental lighting system, they believe it can take the only unpredictable variable in a greenhouse growing system, light, and make it a known quantity. While Erico doesn’t see indoor agriculture replacing traditional farming any time soon, he does believe that this technology is a capable supplement.

Phytosynthetix is currently developing a software platform to tap into the Internet of Things in order to better predict when supplemental light is needed, and when energy cost is lowest – further lowering the cost to grow food in these controlled environments.

If Phytosynthetix has any say about it, the future is looking pretty bright.

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