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12/11/2018 – Technology Series / Agriculture / Vegetables / Electricity

Electro culture: Hidden charges apply


Following the largest experiment of its kind worldwide, Chinese scientists have hailed a breakthrough in dramatically enhancing vegetable production via the application of electrical current. Industry Networker explores how so-called ‘electro culture’ could prove a game-changer in boosting yields.


For hundreds of years, scientists across the world have pondered whether electricity could help enhance plant growth. It was back in 1746 that Dr Maimbray of Edinburgh, Scotland electrified two myrtles. He then noticed the plants starting to sprout new branches as late as October – an occurrence he had not previously observed. News of the potential benefits from electrified cultivation spread across Europe and America, with various experiments supporting and others contradicting the doctor’s theory. Almost three centuries later, after an extensive and lengthy nationwide trial in China, it appears that scientists may now have more conclusive evidence to support the thrust of Dr Maimbray’s findings. 


From Xinjiang’s remote Gobi Desert to China’s developed coastal areas facing the Pacific Ocean, vegetable greenhouse farms with a combined area of more than 3,600 hectares (36 square kilometres) have been taking part in an ‘electro culture’ project financed by the Chinese government. The study’s aim was to test out the electro theory in areas with different climate, soil conditions and plantation habits.


After decades of tests, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) – alongside other government research institutes – have released their findings related to the major experiment. And the results are nothing short of astounding. They show that the electric technique boosted vegetable output by an impressive 20–30 per cent – even more remarkable, given that such production rises were achieved even as pesticide use was reduced by 70–100 per cent, and fertiliser consumption dropped more than 20 per cent.


Sparking growth


In terms of the method, the vegetables are grown under bare copper wires, positioned around three metres above ground level and stretching end-to-end under the greenhouse roof. The wires are capable of generating rapid, positive charges as high as 50,000 volts – or more than 400 times the standard residential voltage in the US.


The electricity effectively kills microbes such as bacteria, protozoa and fungi in the air and soil. Beyond that, CAAS states that the use of electricity also suppresses the surface tension of water on leaves, accelerating vaporisation. It speeds up other processes too – the transportation through the plant of naturally charged particles (e.g., bicarbonate and calcium ions) is achieved at a faster rate, while metabolic activities like CO2 absorption and photosynthesis also hasten in the presence of an electrical current.


Gaining ground


An electrified environment might offer tangible benefits for cultivation, but it doesn’t sound particularly conducive to a safe working environment. Yet according to government agriculture scientist Professor Liu Binjiang – a leading member of the project – the electric current flowing through the wires is only a few millionths of an ampere by volume (i.e., lower than the workload of a smartphone). “It does absolutely no harm to the plants, or to humans standing nearby,” he assures, while the operational costs of the system are equally low-impact.


Certainly, the impressive results of the nationwide study have catalysed strong interest in the electro culture technique across China, where the area devoted to electrified farms is now expanding at a fair clip, according to Prof. Liu. He forecasts that, while admittedly coming from a low base, a nonetheless impressive 40-per-cent expansion in land-space dedicated to electro farming systems could be achieved within the next 12 months across China.  


As interest in the project continues to gain ground, the most recent investments have come from the private sector, Prof. Liu advises. One of those early adopters was Yufa Jingnan Vegetable Production and Sales – one of Beijing’s largest vegetable producers, and a participant in the programme since 2014. The leading business says it has achieved “very satisfactory” results from the project, with the electrified vegetables having brought in extra revenue of nearly 1.2 million yuan (around US$175,000) within the last two years.


Beyond China, Prof. Liu notes that his team has also started supplying the technology and equipment to other countries – including the Netherlands, the United States, Australia and Malaysia. “The business is taking off,” he enthuses, adding: “China is a step ahead of the world.” 


Undoubtedly, in reducing (or even removing) inputs like pesticides and fertilisers from the equation, electro-culture could prove a game-changer in driving down operational costs for farmers, as well as helping to restore natural systems. From a food security perspective too, it is encouraging to see that China – the country, with the most mouths to feed – is leading the charge.

Latest issue – Vol 1/23
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