John Royse’s childhood idea that turned into a research project at Virginia Tech came to life in front of a global audience last month.

The world got to see the result of his research during the presidential inauguration and Women’s March, when 2.5 acres of Royse’s white tiles were some of the ones used to cover the ground on the National Mall.

The tiles minimize damage to grass during large events. While Royse’s coverings have been used in Houston at a Taylor Swift concert and to protect the Philadelphia Eagles’ turf, the dual events last month were the biggest test of “turf tiles” to date. And the whole world was watching.

Other brands of tiles were used during the inauguration in conjunction with Royse’s. Turf coverings were used this year and in 2013.

Royse’s product – and business, Royse Green Technologies in State College, Pennsylvania – was developed while he was a graduate student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences.

The recent events at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., proved that Royse’s research was spot on.

“This might be the largest covering of turf anywhere as far as we can tell,” said Michael Stachowicz, director of grounds at the National Mall and turf management specialist for the National Park Service.

“Nothing was touched when the tiles were removed.”

“We have to act in a way that does not cause damage; the problem is having a perpetual state of construction,” he said. “If we prevent the damage, then the next activity can come in after and use the Mall.”

Royse said Virginia Tech was fertile ground for his idea. While he was at the university, he also tested panels that have LED lights under the tiles to keep the grass healthy.

“Virginia Tech provided the opportunity to help me with financial backing and knowledge,” he said. “The support was great.”

The idea originated from Royse’s childhood days when and his brother played wiffle ball under backyard lights at night.

“Why not put lights on the panels to keep the grass healthy?” he thought.

Existing solutions, such as putting plywood on the ground during events, blocked sunlight, resulting in dead, brown grass after a few days. Re-establishing damaged grass after a major event is timely, expensive, and may not be successful.

Royse’s research at the university evaluated four tiles 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, but there was one constant: Grass did not do well under tiles without light in any season. Grass under translucent tiles survived up to 12 days in an open field. 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.

That’s how turf tiles were born. Royse’s company builds tiles with LED panels and semitransparent panels without lights, such as the ones used at the National Mall. The application for each product is different based on how long the covering will be on the ground.

As evidenced by his research at Virginia Tech, the key to maintaining the turf is allowing light to penetrate any covering. Non-LED tiles allow 25 percent of light through and for a period of less than 10 days on the ground, which can be enough to save the grass.

The LED tiles have wide application for concerts and athletic turf, said Royse, winner of the 2016 Sports Turf Managers Association Innovative Award.

“The research helped me design my product,” he said. “It gave me the confidence I needed to know it would work.”

Royse completed the product design shortly after finishing his degree, and has a patent for the technology. To date, his company has manufactured more than 104,000 square feet of the reusable turf tiles — that’s enough to cover all the ground inside a professional football stadium, including the field and sideline.

“John had a great deal of entrepreneurial spirit in developing his concept, and I was happy to support his efforts as he pursued his dream and brought a new form of technology to protective panels,” said Michael Goatley Jr., professor and Virginia Cooperative Extension turfgrass specialist. “Dr. Erik Ervin and I are certainly proud to have played a small role in John's success. He joins a long list of successful Virginia Tech Turf Team graduate students that have gone on to do some pretty amazing things in the world of turf management.”

In addition to entrepreneurism, the research has also been the springboard for more “turf evangelism” and how Royse first connected with the National Park Service. By using tiles to protect turf before, during, and after public events, the turnaround time between activities is minimized.

“The challenge is to host mega-events and also be this landscape people expect to see when they come to D.C.,” said Stachowicz, noting that he is anxious to try LED turf tiles in the future.

What’s next? For now, Royse is taking it all in.

“It was very cool having the product there at the epicenter of the world for a few days,” he said. 

Written by Carrie Cousins

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