A team of Chinese scientists has developed a little-known method to increase the yields of certain crops using electricity.
Working out of Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences, the researchers found that pea yields were increased by almost 20% when a rain- and wind-powered triboelectric nanogenerator was among the plants.
While it may sound outlandish at first, horticulturalists and scientists had hypothesised the concept of electro culture since before the advent of electricity.
Initially, scientists like Finland’s Semil Lemstrom had observed how atmospheric electricity like lightning and the aurora borealis impacted tree growth.
A study from 1900 found that potato yields were increased almost six-fold when an underground current was introduced during the growth stage. The same researchers found that carrots grew to “unusual” proportions.
The subsequent decade saw countries like France and Germany experiment extensively with the process, culminating in the first international electro culture congress in Riems in France, in 1914.
While the results speak for themselves, much of the science behind why the increased yields of certain vegetables occurred is still largely unexplored.
The answer may lie somewhere in the plant’s photosynthesis process, according to Dr Jianjin Luo, a researcher affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences – the plants that were submitted to electro culture had increased chlorophyll levels.
Chlorophyll, the pigment found in plant matter that gives most vegetation its characteristic green colour, is responsible for converting sunlight into energy during the photosynthesis process.
However, some in the field have called out inconsistencies in Dr Luo’s method and called for further testing. Dr Sarah Driessen, a scientist with RWTH Aachen University in Germany, noted the test was not conducted “double-blind”, meaning researchers knew which plants were the control set and which were exposed to electricity.
While more research is required, the results are intriguing. The harvesting of rainwater and wind power to supply electricity for the plants would remove one of the barriers to entry for the novel method, while also cutting carbon emissions, said Ellard Hunting, a University of Bristol biologist.
Hunting added that while this could be solved with wind turbines and solar panels, the triboelectric nanogenerator developed by the Chinese team was a more cost-effective solution.
According to Dr Luo, his nanogenerator cost roughly $35 to manufacture and could therefore be implemented “immediately and widely”, boosting production in a meaningful way.