Improving Agricultural Production by Slowing Down the Speed of Light

Partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories will move light-based diagnosis technologies into agricultural industry

Headshot of Saif Islam
Professor Saif Islam

An interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Professor Saif Islam from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering will be forging a new partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories to create innovative, fluorescence lifetime imaging—a process currently used in the medical field—for improving agricultural practices. 

The Interdisciplinary Research Catalyst Faculty Fellows Program, which is supported by the UC Davis Office of Research, will support work that stands to improve the efficacy of indoor farming—an industry that accounts for 55% of vegetable operations in the U.S., had a global value of $3.1 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to more than $10 billion by 2027 with an aggressive growth of about 23.3% annually, according to the New York Times.  

There are several factors contributing to an increased interest in indoor farming worldwide. Farmers need to produce about 70% more food to meet the demand of the predicted 10 billion people, and about 68% of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050. In contrast, global arable land has decreased by 30% during the past 40 years due to climate change and urbanization. The Food and Agriculture Organization statistics reveal that the arable land-per-capita is projected to decrease to one-third by 2050 compared to 1970.  

ECE innovation drives partnership

The fellowship will support Islam’s research in ultra-fast system-on-a-chip for fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM) and sensing of biomolecules and bring it into agricultural practices. This technology includes developing ultra-fast cameras for analyzing molecules and detectors that slow down and trap photons, allowing them to be captured more easily for analysis. This method also allows for less intense lighting to be used during diagnosing, thereby reducing the risk of light damage while still keeping diagnostic accuracy high.

The fellowship will provide seed funding to support graduate student researchers, the building of a vertical farm on campus, and supporting research related to Ag-tech and food security—a research priority of UC Davis made all the more poignant because of recent supply chain issues and impending global food shortages. Increased emphasis on Ag-tech and food security at UC Davis, a world leader in agriculture and food systems, has now opened doors to integrate CITRIS endeavors with the vision of Aggie Square. The goal is to initiate research projects on sustainable climate-smart agriculture with net-zero carbon emissions.

Moving from medical field to agriculture

Islam, who also is director of The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute, has collaborated for many years with colleagues at UC Davis in biomedical engineering, including Professor Laura Marcu, to use these technologies in medical diagnostic tools. In his role as director of CITRIS, Islam saw the opportunity to translate these technologies to a totally different industry: agriculture. 

He then built a team of interdisciplinary UC Davis experts in biological and agricultural engineering, including Assistant Professor Md Shamim Ahamed, computer sciences and artificial intelligence. With the support of this Office of Research fellowship, the team will also incorporate Carl Grace, an expert from LBNL and a UC Davis electrical and computer engineering alumnus. Grace serves as the group leader for the integrated circuits group in the engineering division of LBNL. He is a well-recognized leader in mixed-signal microelectronics for scientific detectors, sensor and imager instrumentation, which will be crucial for developing miniature sensing systems. Together, they will develop light-based technologies that will allow farmers to better track growth rates, nutrient levels and overall plant health in indoor farming, i.e. vertical farming, multi-layer farms and greenhouses. The goal is to attach these light-based detectors to drones to cut down on farming labor costs. 

“Basically we are using these tools to determine whether the plants are happy and healthy or not, and that happiness can be expressed by molecules who emits light of different colors and lifetimes. But, these differences in these molecules can be hard for the human eye to detect,” Islam said. “So we are creating a camera or imaging platform that can capture the color, lifetime and location of the photon in the molecule. Once you can figure all those things out, you can then use artificial intelligence to know if the plants are happy and healthy or not.”

In addition to building better plant diagnosis tools, Islam and the team will be looking at ways to apply their photon guiding and defusing technology to LED and natural lighting used in indoor farms to reduce heat in the room and make the process more energy efficient.

Impact on global food supply

The technology, while effective, is expensive. This is the primary reason its use has remained in the medical field and not transferred into agriculture. The work supported through this UC Davis-LBNL partnership can change that by making the technology more affordable and field deployable.

Precision-based diagnostic tools stand to have a large impact on indoor farming because they will give farmers the capability to identify issues and fix them before the human eye can even detect the problems. It also could help reduce costs of indoor farming and increase food production, as well as create opportunities for previously non-agricultural regions to grow their own produce.

“UC Davis is well known worldwide for our radical, interdisciplinary approach to research,” Islam said. “And when you want to solve a big problem, like food insecurity, you need that interdisciplinary approach. This project is a great example of this.”

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