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A Xenia-based company found a way to kill weeds with light. Here's why that matters

A blue light device is aimed at a plant in soil.
Courtesy of Global Neighbor
One of the consumer products that Global Neighbor creates is WeedErase. Here it's being used during a treatment of a weed in a flower bed.

Global Neighbor, a company based in Xenia, has created the perfect recipe for light that no one else has. It's a recipe that could make it easier to maintain solar fields and cut the use of herbicides.

They call it directed energy.

The idea for it was developed by Patrick Jackson – product manager for Global Neighbor – when he was in high school.

“We were told ‘you really can't plant a weed up against clear plastic and keep it in daylight, because roots aren't supposed to see light. That's why they're in the ground,’” Patrick Jackson explained. “So in other words, in order to kill a plant, if I make the root see light, then I could kill it.”

Directed energy works by emulating sunlight. Once the directed energy light is aimed towards the root of a plant, the wavelengths are able to penetrate the soil. Then the plant will die within 10 to 14 days.

Easing maintenance for solar fields

One of their projects using directed energy is being considered for the American-Made Solar Prize, a national invention competition supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“With the American-Made Solar Prize, we’re looking for agile competitors that can quickly transform their ideas into early-stage prototypes,” Markus Beck, Manufacturing and Competitiveness Program Manager for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office, said in an email. "The teams advancing to the second contest showed promising innovations to address some of the most pressing challenges facing the solar industry.”

This competition sets out to find projects that will innovate the solar energy industry. They were one of 20 teams to move onto the second round of the competition and to earn $50,000.

The project is a robotic arm-like attachment that will be placed on a motorized device. The arm will have the directed energy light to kill weeds around solar panel posts.

A small blue motorized device.
Adriana Martinez-Smiley
Global Neighbor is partnering with Renu Robotics for the motorized portion of their Solar Prize Project. The directed energy light will also be fixed with a camera system.

"The robot will spot weeds in the distance. Then, it will stop and not only locate and target, but treat each weed individually, with no chemical application, only our light application, leaving no damage and killed plants for all the unwanted weeds," said Patrick Jackson.

To ensure solar panels can absorb as much sunlight as possible, the plants around them have to be cut regularly.

The hope is that it would make maintenance of solar facilities easier, says Jon Jackson, president of Global Neighbor and Patrick Jackson’s father.

“It's particularly useful for the solar field because it can be completely automated. And so you can have it here and the robot can do it and it can take care of the vegetation in the common area, and then the vegetation around the structure,” Jon Jackson said.

Global Neighbor is working with the Department of Agriculture and Department of Defense on other directed energy projects. The company also has a commercial product that is equipped with their directed energy technology.

Goal to help everybody "from farmers to homeowners"

The goal is to reduce the need for herbicides, Jon Jackson said.

“We're not anti-herbicide; they're a good solution. But we just think they're just being overused. Atrazine, they're talking about how you put some down here and a thousand miles away, they can detect it. So it's just the pervasiveness of it – and for many of the applications, it’s just not necessary,” Jon Jackson said.

Some herbicides have been found to have human health and environmental impacts.

Next month, the developers will present the constructed device for the second round of the Solar Prize.

Patrick Jackson said they’re hopeful for the impact their technology will bring.

“We're really happy to have won that portion as far as we have and (we’re) excited to continue, of course. But also we have a bunch of other tools we're very excited to bring to the wider market in general, that we hope to help everybody from farmers to homeowners, with weed problems,” he said.

Adriana Martinez-Smiley (she/they) is the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Reporter for WYSO. They grew up in Hamilton, Ohio and graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in June 2023. Before joining WYSO, her work has been featured in NHPR, WBEZ and WTTW.

Email: amartinez-smiley@wyso.org
Cell phone: 937-342-2905