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DePaul Student Hunts the Right Hydro Lights

By Paul Biasco | April 19, 2013 7:21am

LINCOLN PARK — DePaul University student Steve Lu is on the hunt for the next big thing in urban agriculture.

Lu, a 29-year-old graduate student, had no background in science before enrolling for his MBA at DePaul, but within the past year he has created the first hydroponics grow lab at the school and taken over managing duties of the greenhouse.

Lu, who has an undergraduate degree in engineering, spent seven years working in industrial engineering and manufacturing before enrolling for his MBA. That was a natural step for an accomplished engineer.

But when he took a class to develop a marketing plan and began looking into growing hydroponics, the project became an obsession.

Lu has since grown 16 pounds of produce in a two-month period inside a small closet-like lab in a third floor building on DePaul's Lincoln Park campus.

His lab is eerily lit by two competing sources of light that shine on two tiers of kale plants all day, every day.

The research he is doing on light sources for indoor growth is groundbreaking stuff, and although it's easy to associate his work with growing a different kind of weed in a closet, Lu is sticking to science.

"We've talked to him a lot about testing hypotheses as he looks to explore different lights he's using. How do you know its repeatable? Are there taste differences?" said Judith Bramble, chairwoman of DePaul's Environmental Studies department. "He doesn't have a strong science background, but he's really soaked it up."

Lu was going to school part-time while still working for Weber in Palatine, but quit seven months ago to pursue his new passion.

"I saw this opportunity. More and more people are moving to the city," he said. "You have a higher density of people and people have to eat."

Urban agriculture has been growing in popularity the last few years. Chicago has set out to support the city's green thumbs, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to spread urban farms across the city. But Lu's work seeks to bring the farm indoors.

Lu's lab features two setups, one with a florescent lighting system, and a second lit by red and blue LED lights. The green is left out, because kale doesn't absorb that wavelength of light.

His current results found that the florescent light makes the kale grow twice as fast as the LED bulbs, but used three times the energy.

"He's gotten more done in a year than I'd ever expect that he'd get done," Bramble said.

Lu's next step is to build an induction lighting system, which he says is essentially "lighting in a bottle," and could be the next big thing in urban agriculture.

His experiments are similar to the production at sustainable food production facilities such as The Plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where he is an intern.

The Plant set up inside the old Peer Foods meat packing plant in the Union Stockyards and includes an aquaponic farm for growing produce, a tilapia farm and a Kombucha brewery.

DePaul bought the aquaponic setups for Lu, and has recently added an urban agriculture minor, which was in response to "tremendous student interest," Bramble said.

"He's really done a lot to enhance his knowledge of hydroponics, but he's also created a system that will allow our students to continue experiments in that lab," she said. "We've got a lot of students interested in food, especially urban food systems and community food systems."