THE FLIP CHIP: What’s up with LED?

Still shaking the bulb to see if it’s out? From car headlights to light bulbs and street lamps, everything seems to be making the change to LED, and for good reason. We all know how much more efficient they are, just like when we switched those twirly CFL bulbs, and it seems to be branching into every field. Except cannabis?

LED companies have tried just about everything to break into the cannabis space. You can’t help but see their ads on the side of every grow article and magazine. But when you see pictures of large operations, almost nobody has them. Why is this?

The industry standard for cannabis has been HID (High Intensity Discharge) lamps with the HPS (High Pressure Sodium) bulbs being the most popular. While I wish there were some triumphant story of clandestine growers secretly developing these specialty bulbs, it’s actually one of the first designs created to successfully replicate sunlight. HID’s are used, and have been for almost a century, in street lamps, headlights, warehouses and just about anywhere a large amount of light and intensity is needed. Needless to say, HIDs became standard because they were readily available and they worked!

In a grow room, and especially a company, everything comes down to production efficiency. If you weren’t already aware, cannabis is known for being able to consume an ungodly amount of nutrients and light and actually use it for growth. Where most vegetables only need supplemental lighting and a few hours of concentrated light, cannabis needs heavy intensity the whole time. CFL (Compact Fluorescent) bulbs and fixtures like the T5, plant versions of the twirly bulb, have proven effective for vegetative growth, but they don’t have enough intensity for flowering cannabis. This reason alone is why HIDs have maintained their status over the years despite advancements in lighting.

LED lighting was one of the first to enter the cannabis space with sufficient intensity to successfully flower cannabis, with a catch; you have to grow short, tightly packed plants. The original models of LEDs boasted all the truths you still hear; cooler running, more efficient, variable temperatures, dimmable and with substantially less lumen depreciation over the life of the lamp. The downside was the lack of canopy penetration. Any buds beneath the top six inches of the canopy lacked density or even full development and putting the lamp too close bleached the tops of all the flowers.

Their next biggest hold back was the lamp size. Most early designs maxed out at as low as 300 watts yet were intended to cover a 4’x4’ or 5’x5’ footprint, the same as a 1000 watt HID. Clearly not enough. This problem arose out of limitations with the light designs. Unlike HIDs that run on wire filaments and gas in a tube, LEDs are Light Emitting Diodes that are mounted on a chip in a reflector cup. The typical design includes hundreds of diodes in chips but the chips were extremely limited in their output due to heat exchange. If too much power was supplied, the lamps began wasting energy into heat rather than producing more intense light.

What this meant to the grower was stacking countless lamps next to one another to attempt a similar coverage of a singular HID, not to mention the extreme start-up cost difference. No amount of heat savings is better when you have smaller yields, ever.

While LEDs in the cannabis space has been an uphill battle, some substantial technological gains might have finally bridged the gap. Without overcomplicating it, even and rapid heat disbursement, or thermal dissipation, is the key to upping the wattage. Using the 3-pad flip chip technology by Flip Chip Opto and patented heatsinks, URSA lighting has done the unthinkable. Where the maximum LED wattage has been as much as 600 in recent years, URSA can now produce lamps as much as 2400 watts per unit. Their recent install in the San Diego Convention Center is proof. Combining all the advantages of LED lighting with the increased ability for canopy penetration means the tides may be changing. Use in greenhouses along with more compact indoor structures is only the beginning of potential opportunities.

While this high wattage technology is still being perfected, this may be the first feasible option cannabis growers have for energy efficiency. Cannabis as a crop and a commodity is very high in energy consumption. As this industry grows and hopefully more people grow at home, we need to seriously consider the amount of energy we’re using to nurture this plant. If we can move towards less heat production and ultimately less energy usage with the same results, I think we can all get on board with that. Perhaps it’s time to put away the trustworthy HID work horse and try out the new “cool” toy.

Originally published at Dope Magazine.

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