Industry Insider: Dennis Brown
By Cosmo MacKenzie • 4 years Ago
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By Cosmo MacKenzie • 4 years Ago
Pig farmers, violin makers and cannabis cultivators make for unlikely bedfellows; Solacure binds them all together, producing ultraviolet lighting across these industries and many more besides. Their client list includes universities throughout the US and the US Department of Energy. Their lights have been used to show, in laboratory conditions, that UV light bridges the gap in quality between garden grown tomatoes and those grown indoors, out of season. Solacure’s UV light, The Flower Power arrives in the UK imminently. We take an in-depth look at how this works in our Expert Insights article, but for now we caught up with Dennis Brown to give some insight into Solacure and the work they do.
Solacure have been trading since 1985; what brought you to the horticulture industry?
Technically, our sister company started in 1985. I was recruited sometime around 1993 to assist with their technical needs. They manufactured tanning equipment, so I got to learn about UV in a high volume, highly changeable market. I got to experiment with UV lights and electronics, as well as system design, very early on. We started working with growers (and other industries) about twelve years ago, and I finally started up Solacure as a standalone company a few years after that. The birth of Solacure was more of an evolution than a singular event.
So, for the uninitiated, can you give us a brief rundown of how ultraviolet light affects plants?
Most plants can sense ultraviolet, and UVB in particular. In fact, they have a special protein called UVR8 which acts as a chemical messenger to the plant. Because UV can damage the DNA of all living things, the plants react to protect their offspring; their seeds. In the case of tomatoes, Purdue University used our lamps to show that they produce more flavonoids and thicker flesh.
In the case of cannabis, they will produce significantly more THC. This is because THC has a very high absorption index for UV. It would actually make a good sunscreen. This is how the plant protects its seeds (or rather, where its seed would be), by coating its flowers with extra THC. As far as the plant is concerned, the only reason THC exists is for this sunblock feature, it serves no other function. Add more UVB, you get more THC, up to a point.
What do you find is the most common misconception people have when it comes to UV light?
People often overestimate the danger. They think it will kill their plants or give them cancer. The fact is, plants can’t walk into the shade like you and I can. They had to evolve to be able to handle a lot more UV than you and me. As for safety to humans, we also evolved in the sun and can handle moderate amounts. In addition, the Flower Power was designed to be so strong, you only run them for two to four hours a day, so it is easy to schedule them when no humans are around. If you have to be around them, proper eye wear is usually sufficient.
The other misconception is that all UV is the same. UVA and UVB are unique colours, colours that you and I can’t see, but many birds and insects can. Just as pink and burgundy aren’t the same colour (even if they are both a kind of “red”), 288nm isn’t the same as 312nm, even if they are both technically UVB. The effect on a plant is very different for each slice of the UV spectrum. People tend to lump “UV” as if it was a single thing. A lot of cheap LED lighting companies are famous for advertising they have UV, just to find out they produce a little 380nm, which isn’t useful for growers. These companies have actually made the confusion worse, as they push products that they themselves do not understand.
There are other supplemental UV lights available on the market; what sets Solacure lights apart from the rest?
We started making horticultural lights a decade before anyone else entered the market, so we have a bit of a head start, but there are some distinct differences. All our lamps have a reflector built inside the lamp. No light goes behind them, they only shine down towards the plants, so they don’t need an external reflector system. No one else does this.
Also, all of our lamps use only UV phosphors. Virtually every other light I’ve seen is a mix of UVA, UVB and up to 65% visible light spectrum. We put no visible light phosphors in our bulbs, so you get nothing but UVA and UVB. This means they won’t interfere with the colour temperature of your general lighting, and you can run them for fewer hours and at lower wattage. One customer did some R&D for us and found a “famous brand” actually had 20% of the efficiency that our lamps had, when comparing watts and UV output.
Probably the biggest difference is our glass. We license a very special glass for the Flower Power. While all other UV lamps produce only 300nm-400nm, the Flower Power goes all the way down to 280nm. Since the UVR8 protein is triggered mainly at 288nm, this means we are sending the plant the strongest signal and can do it using less UV by virtue of it being at the right frequency. As far as I know, we have the only lamp that absolutely triggers the UVR8 protein.
Here in the UK, we’re more familiar with the T5 Fluorescents; why does Solacure use T12 lamps and bulbs?
I get asked this a lot. We’ve built prototype T5 and T8 tubes, they just don’t compare. UV isn’t made in the middle of the lamp, it is made on the surface, where the phosphors are coated. A T12 has a much bigger surface area, so you get more UV. Also, our Flower Power is designed to run at 20w, or up to 100w, and the larger area dissipates heat better. Additionally, since we use a built-in reflector, the larger diameter bulb creates a better spread of light. As a bonus, they last about 33% longer because of this. We actually do produce some T8 bulbs for growers and other industries, by the way, so we aren’t against them, we just know their limitations.
Can you tell us a little about how and when Solacure lamps are best used?
The Flower Power has three primary uses when it comes to growing. One, it boosts THC 15%-30% or more. This depends on strain, etc. but the average gain is around 25%. I don’t blame anyone for being sceptical, but the evidence is overwhelming and has been building for years.
Two, because the Flower Power is a broadband UV bulb (ie: it covers everything from 280nm to 380nm instead of just having a couple of peaks) it is great for killing powdery mildew. We have some customers that use it for this purpose only. It isn’t a replacement for good sanitation, but it will prevent PM from getting started.
Third, it suppresses insects very well, particularly soft-shelled insects. The UVA damages their DNA and kills them. We recommend using them starting at day one of flowering, but some will use them an hour or two a day about half way through the veg cycle.
There are very few topics that descend into an argument as quickly as a discussion about light; how are you working to help dispel myths and received wisdom in favour of empirical evidence?
This is tough, and there is a lot of research yet to do. I’m a sceptic by nature, but the fact that cannabis is illegal in so many places, in the US, the UK, the EU, this makes it hard to do proper and public testing. I don’t grow cannabis, never have, so I depend on others. We have given away hundreds of lamps over the years in exchange for others doing experiments for us. In a way, it’s good that I don’t grow, so my own opinions and biases don’t get in the way. What we have compiled isn’t perfectly empirical, but it is better than anecdotal because the results have been tested and verified by many growers who don’t know each other. We have years of testing using many different lamps and prototypes, plus we also have some good basic research available that relates to all plants, not just cannabis. But yes, it is hard to dispel the myths, and talking to people one on one is a very slow way to spread real facts.
Plus, this is cannabis we are talking about, which itself has been the subject of myths and rumours since Reefer Madness came out in the 1930s. Right now, there is a gold rush of companies flooding the market with products of various quality, making all kinds of claims, and it is hard to hold back that flood of misinformation. Caveat Emptor.
LEDs are the hot topic of late; how do they measure up to your lamps and can you see that changing in the future?
When it comes to general lighting, I don’t have an opinion, that is outside my field of expertise. When it comes to UVA, they do a pretty good job from 365nm to 400nm. When it comes to UVB, they are not ready for prime time. 280nm is such a very small wavelength, and it has 100x the energy of 312nm (as an example), and LEDs aren’t well suited for the task. The efficiencies are less than 1% at this stage. Keep in mind, there isn’t much of a market for it, so there isn’t a lot of research going into it. There is a lot of research going into general grow lights because that overlaps with general lighting. Eventually, they will get the efficiencies up to par.
The other problem is spectrum. LEDs are very spiky in their output, very narrow in the bands they produce. While this is a great advantage for some applications, it isn’t for UV supplementation of plants. You can see the spectrum of our Flower Power on the website, it is amazingly smooth. That isn’t an accident and it took a LOT of engineering time to get right. The only way you can accomplish this with LEDs is to use a lot of LEDs at different frequencies, which adds to the complexity of engineering. The industry will get there, just not in the next two to three years.
As an aside, I’m currently doing consulting for the sister company who is building a 633nm red light therapy system for people. They use fluorescent bulbs, but I’m developing an LED system for the unit, so we are already working with LEDs. This means when Solacure does go LED, we will be able to create tubes that can be used in our existing fluorescent fixtures, with compensating ballasts inside the LED tube. There’s no need to throw out those old fixtures, they won’t be obsolete.
With more than thirty years of experience in the industry, we have to ask; what gets you up in the morning? How do stay engaged with the industry after so long?
Well, I started in tanning, then moved into UV curing and cannabis and a lot more. Just today, I sold some Universal UV lamps to a pig farmer, who uses them to darken the black patches on show pigs. (Laugh if you want, but I’ve sold at least 1000 bulbs for this purpose). I sold a set of SG-1-40 lamps to a violin maker, who uses them to age the wood and dry the linseed oil finish. We have customers who make pool cues, fishing lures, surf boards, white tennis shoes, test how materials will stand up to the sun and more.
Cannabis is a large portion of our business but it isn’t the majority of what we do. Honestly, I think this helps us be better at making horticultural lamps, because we don’t have a one track business model. We get to learn stuff in unrelated markets and apply that knowledge to horticulture. It also means we aren’t dependent on a single market for our revenue, so we can take more risks. Between us and the sister company, we’ve shipped out at least three million lamps, something few companies can claim. This gives us economies of scale and real world experience that you can’t get if you only serve one market. By the same token, virtually all of our products are ultraviolet related, so we really have a lot of experience with UV.
Finally, I actually like what I do. I like the variety, the challenges and the customers. I got to work with Patricia at Texas A&M for lamps to test how sorghum reacted to UVB. I still work with the University of Florida, who uses our Flower Power bulbs to break down insecticide residue and render it inert. There are lots of novel uses and these actually helped me understand horticulture a bit better. At least once or twice a month, someone calls that wants to use one of our bulbs for something I’ve never even thought of before. There are always new challenges, and often, these will give me new insights into how UV affects plants.
Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to people, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to take reasonable risks. This is true whether we are talking about growing, or just living your life. Be sceptical, but don’t let that scepticism stop you from trying new things or taking some chances. There is no one “right” way to do things, so experiment. And please, be generous with what you learn, and share it with others.
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