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Growers inject electricity to boost crops

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.

In China, the government is backing agricultural projects that use giant rigs to draw electricity into the soil to boost crop yields. In Canada, a commercial grower has been experimenting with cold plasma to fertilize its lettuces. Now startups are entering the scene, like Vivent, a Swiss company whose "EEG" can eavesdrop on plants' inner electrical lives and is being aggressively courted by the ag industry. Even the organic gardening influencer community is sniffing around the trend.

The new crop of researchers shuns the word "electroculture," favoring terms like "smart farming" or "fourth agricultural revolution." But the underlying mechanism remains the same, and advocates are united in the conviction that, after centuries in the desert, electricity for plants is finally ready to bear fruit. The hope is that these futuristic systems can be enlisted to combat the global food crisis – reducing the environmental consequences of mass-scale agriculture.


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