The farmers boosting crops with electricity
Added on 22 August 2023
The translucent orange cubes jiggle temptingly under the grow lights, looking for all the world like exotic confectionery, somewhere between gummy bears and Turkish delight. If it weren't for the vibrant green leaves poking out of the little air tunnels that perforate them, I might be tempted to pop one in my mouth when Maddalena Salvalaio isn't looking. She seems to read my mind. "We often have to remind visitors not to eat them," she says.
The cubes are made of hydrogel, a material with a network structure that holds liquid. It's more typically found in medical devices and nappies. But here, in the Plant Morphogenesis Laboratory at Imperial College London, Salvalaio – a research technician – and Giovanni Sena – a principal investigator – are using them to change the future of vertical farming. The secret sauce in this bold new approach is the electrodes that flank either side of each cube.
Salvalaio and Sena's experiment is one of a growing global constellation of projects that aim to boost agriculture using a variety of electrical interventions. The last decade or two have seen a proliferation of ways to electrically stimulate seeds, crops and fields: increasing yield under the influence of an electric field; shocking seeds to hasten germination; even zapping the water they are doused with. In the US, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has given millions of dollars to research the agricultural uses of cold plasma – essentially controlled lightning delivered at room temperature.