RSC Emerging Technologies winner could help to combat food scarcity

Using photoluminescence, Lambda Energy’s greenhouse coatings will turn UV light into red light, increasing crop yields by up to 20 per cent with no extra energy

July 21, 2023
© Scenics & Science / Alamy Stock Photo
© Scenics & Science / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s eight billion people in the world right now and soon there’s going to go up to 10,” says Niall Haughian, “We need to feed these folk.” He’s speaking to Prospect after his company, Lambda Energy, won first place in the energy category at this year’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Emerging Technology Award, granting the company a £25,000 prize pot and the chance to network with some of the UK’s greatest chemists.

“One thing that’s also becoming crystal clear is that climate change is completely screwing up the world,” he continues. “We're going to have a lot of food inflation, because of crop failure or droughts. The fact is that we’re going to be growing more and more food in a controlled environment, and to maximise that we need to minimise the [costs] involved in the need for huge, expensive LED lighting. 

How does Lambda Energy propose to do that? It’s simple: greenhouse coverings made from specially designed light-changing materials that can convert UV light into red light, in turn allowing plants to grow faster, in some cases increasing crop yield by up to 20 per cent.

The coverings, which can be applied as a spray or embedded into the greenhouse directly, work by using photoluminescence to help plants grow faster with no extra energy. “This is an inherent physical property of the material,” explains Boris Breiner, chief scientist at Lambda Energy. “You absorb light with a shorter wavelength, in our case UV. It gets absorbed by the molecule, where the energy is briefly stored, and is then released as a longer wavelength photon.”

Haughian and his team hope that the platform and networking opportunities of the Emerging Technologies competition will allow them to “raise some serious capital” and invest in more significant trials, which in turn will nudge new investors in their direction. “Raising money for an advanced materials company is probably the hardest thing going,” says Haughian. “If we were creating some rubbish app, we could have raised millions, but because we’re doing deep tech in advanced materials, there is a big, big reluctance from [investors] to open up the cheque book.” So far, he says, the company has relied on government grants, including the Energy Entrepreneurs Fund.

For Haughian and Breiner, even taking part in the RSC’s competition—let alone winning—was “tremendous”, not only because the “seal of approval” from such a prestigious organisation is likely to make a huge difference to the company, but also for the opportunities it gave for networking.

“You have the judges, which, just by the sheer nature of the questions that they're asking, will immediately have your synapses going,” says Breiner. “But even after the presentation, during networking times, you talk to other people” who ask even more useful questions. By talking to others, Haughian said he also learned more about his own business strategy; they even met a chemist who had worked on an extremely similar project previously. Haughian has since asked him to join his board.

“I mean, there’s a room full of chemists,” Breiner adds. “Of course it’s great.”