Sunlight to feed the world

Photonics is an industry that has aroused Merck's curiosity for more than 30 years


It is estimated that the world population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Ensuring an adequate food supply for such a large number of people would be a big challenge for agriculture. However, climate change is putting even greater pressure on farmers, agribusinesses and scientists specialized in crops to protect plants from the effects of weather and pests, and to maximize crop productivity.

Photonics is an industry that has aroused Merck's curiosity for more than 30 years. In fact, we have always had a special interest in light and how it interacts with different materials.

In order to effectively manage challenges such as resource scarcity or feeding the world, we have created a solution capable of adjusting the spectrum of sunlight to the precise needs of plants, thus accelerating their growth and increasing their yield. Our photonic solutions have the power to tune sunlight spectra by means of a fluorescent carrier nanostructure -based on Merck's expertise in materials technology- to make them suitable for the needs of plants.

In this process, Merck's innovative technology performs two functions at once: the photonic material blocks too intense and harmful UV radiation, while amplifying specific radiation mainly in the red or far-red region of the light spectrum, which accelerates crop growth.

Several fluorescent materials have already been developed for photonic films or layers that increase the specific radiation needed for a multitude of crops. To make the technology valid in a realistic scenario, we are currently conducting large-scale, multi-location field trials. Our progressive photonic concept includes multiple-crop cycles in 13 time zones across four continents and is expected to achieve double-digit growth and yield increases.

Possible future applications for our photonic solution are already under development at our Innovation Center at Darmstadt (Germany) and are highly promising: for example, applying progressive photonic alternatives directly on plants as a spray or deploying them in the form of reflective cards. 

We are currently developing an app based on deep-learning Artificial Intelligence at the Merck Innovation Center. This tool will give farmers recommendations on the correct formulation of photonic products for specific stages of the crop growth cycle depending on geographical location. We believe that our innovative concept has the potential to shake up agriculture and will mark the entry into the age of smart and future farming.

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