U.S. National Park Service officials were looking for a home run when they consulted John Royse, then the head groundskeeper at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium, about ways to minimize damage to the National Mall and Memorial Parks grass during large events.

Royse was using panels to cover the Nationals’ turf during a concert featuring Elton John and Billy Joel. Among other things, park service officials wanted to know how long the grass would stay green under the panels without any sunlight hitting it.

Royse fielded the question and ran with it — all the way to Virginia Tech.

John Royse sits in front of the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C., on one of the lighted grass panels he researched at Virginia Tech.
John Royse sits in front of the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C., on one of the lighted grass panels he researched at Virginia Tech. Photo courtesy of Robb Hill.

“There is little scientific data on this topic,” Royse said. “We needed a university to research that question.”

Royse left his job to do the research himself. In 2010, he started work on a master’s degree in crop and soil environmental sciences under the supervision of Erik Ervin, a professor of turfgrass culture and physiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Virginia Tech Department of Athletics and the U.S. National Park Service funded Royse’s research.

The existing panels blocked sunlight from the ground, resulting in dead, brown grass after a few days. Re-establishing damaged grass after a major event is timely and expensive and may not be successful.

Royse had an idea from his childhood days when and his brother played wiffleball under backyard lights at night. “Why not put lights on the panels to keep the grass healthy?” he thought.

John Royse’s panels use a series of LED lights to help the grass underneath continue photosynthesis and stay green.
John Royse’s panels use a series of LED lights to help the grass underneath continue photosynthesis and stay green. Photo courtesy of Robb Hill.

Before coming to Virginia Tech, he built a series of panels embedded with LED lights and tested them on a simulated stage in his wife’s back yard. LED lights continued photosynthesis, he said.

Royse’s research at the university evaluated four panels and the impact of lights when the grass was covered for up to 20 days in the spring, summer, and fall.

Different light, temperatures, and soil moisture yielded different conclusions, he said. Some covers provided greater protection in summer heat and color retention in all seasons.

But there was one constant: Grass did not do well under unlit panels in any season. Though grass under translucent panels survived up to 12 days in an open field, those panels did not work under stages with limited light.

Grass under lighted panels lasted up to 20 days before the grass lost its color. Panels with LED lights seemed the best solution, he said.

The research also showed that too much light during the summer months could create heat stress, causing the grass to turn brown. “The proper amount of light is crucial,” Royse said.

“John’s motivation and entrepreneurial spirit came together during his experience at Virginia Tech,” Ervin said. “This resulted in an excellent set of turf protection recommendations for the National Mall and the invention of a new product to keep turf grasses photosynthesizing even while covered.”

John Royse talks about turfgrass in Lane Stadium during the November 2012 University Open House.
John Royse talks about turfgrass in Lane Stadium during the November 2012 University Open House.

While in graduate school, Royse put his panel system to the ultimate test: a concert stage at a major league baseball field.

“The grass was perfectly green,” Royse said. He found the lit panels also protected the turf before, during, and after public events, minimizing damage to the playing surface.

Europeans have already discovered the advantages of using artificial light on sports fields to keep the grass green in the winter, he said.

“Now, we have an American product, and we can throw some rock ‘n’ roll into it,” Royse said.

He awaits a patent on his invention. Royse graduated from Virginia Tech in 2012 and is hoping the National Park Service will either rent or buy his panels. And there are countless other applications for his product, including other professional sports arenas that want to hold events without damaging their sports fields, he said.

Royse said he created his niche.

“I’m in a place where I can make my own opportunities,” he said.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Zeke Barlow or 540-231-5417.