The world’s population is increasing rapidly, and according to the U.N. we’re going to need to produce 60% more food by 2050. That’s further complicated by the fact that climate change is disrupting agriculture around the world. In response, an Australian startup is working to accelerate crop growth—by zapping plants with electricity.
Rainstick basically mimics lightning in controlled environments, creating ions (charged particles) in the air and pushing them onto plants and fungi to stimulate. Admittedly, the work is at a very early stage, but if it can be used successfully to stimulate growth, it would not only boost food production but also eliminate the need for pesticides.
The name Rainstick refers to the object used in the Aboriginal rain dance, says cofounder Darryl Lyons. Lore has it that 10,000 years ago, as part of their rain dance ceremonies, grain farmers would bury the rainstick, or chuggura, covered with a metal oxide to attract lightning, a process that would send electrical signals to plant cells to grow faster.
“Everyone looks at those knowledge systems as things of the past,” says Lyons, whose mother’s side of the family is Maiawali, an Indigenous people of Queensland. “We’re taking on that philosophy and using the current tools we have available.”
Throughout history, there have been moments of heightened interest in how external electric fields enhance plant growth, says Giovanni Sena, an associate professor of natural sciences at Imperial College London. But it hasn’t been studied in enough depth to be rigorously quantified. “The scientific establishment starts to lose patience and they don’t believe it anymore,” he says.
Sena’s current research is slightly different, focusing on electrotropism, which is applying a weak electric field to already grown plants to make them move to or from electrically charged particles. That could help them move toward nutrients or away from pathogens.
Even in the West, electroculture—a very broad term for the interaction between plants and electrical energy—has been around for centuries; people have tried to electrify plants since Benjamin Franklin proved that lightning was electric. A French physicist wrote a book called The Electricity of Vegetables in 1783; and Britain set up a committee to investigate the concept in 1918. But it was largely forgotten after World War II, when pesticides gained favor.
There appears to be another slight jump in interest now, as global food security concerns grow. Researchers working across farms in China recently reported that electrically charged vegetable yields could increase by 20% to 30%. Japanese researchers found yields of mushrooms increased in weight at certain voltages.
But Lyons says some of the past work has had a “brutal” approach, placing high voltages directly into plants. Rainstick’s technique is noncontact, creating electric fields in the air. It created an antenna, a “modern-day rainstick,” to radiate an electric field 12 to 16 inches around the plant—initially fungi, inspired by the Japanese mushroom studies. In indoor trial stages, the startup’s shiitake mushrooms grew 20% bigger and faster than those in control groups. They got the process down from three hours of electrical exposure to five minutes.
Lyons calls the technique a “variable electric field,” which refers to the ability to create differing results, or recipes, using variable frequencies: 50,000 precise frequencies and nine different waveforms. They found specific frequencies that stimulated the mushrooms to accelerate growth, and others to inhibit mold.
“What that told us is that these frequencies trigger certain biological switches,” he says. “That’s really novel.” Lyons and his partners want to find recipes to manipulate germination rates, how and when seeds pop out of casings, and how well seeds withstand different climate conditions.
The next stage is to decide on the most effective business model for scaling up, which might be to treat the seeds at very early life, then sell them to farmers to plant as normal.
Rainstick is building a bigger machine that will place seeds on a conveyor belt so they’re all exposed to a large number of antennae. The aim is for the solar-powered machine to treat 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of seeds per day—which could eventually scale up to as much as 10 metric tons per day.
Early seeds will be shipped to various partners to test, including a large agriculture firm for cheaper cereal crops, and seedling nurseries for premium vegetables like tomatoes and watermelon.
In assessing Rainstick’s claims, Sena is cautious due to the lack of public data from the company and a dearth of substantial research on electroculture in general. “I think it’s a good project to reduce the amount of chemicals we spray all over the place,” Sena says. He adds: “I’m just not sure [if] the technology can be trusted at this point,” noting that people shouldn’t think it will be a “fantastic new revolution that is going to overnight halve the price of your potatoes or your bread.”
But cost is one area where Lyons is optimistic. He estimates his kilogram machine to cost $66,800 to $100,000, and says prices shouldn’t jump as the company scales up. When compared to the chemicals that you have to mine, manufacture, and distribute, he says the Rainstick method could end up driving down prices for farmers.