Shiitake growing trials - Image credits: Rainstick
In the quest for sustainable agriculture amid the global challenge of increasing food production, an Australian startup, Rainstick, is harnessing the power of electricity to accelerate crop growth, with the help of researchers from the James Cook University. The concept, inspired by the Aboriginal rain dance, involves mimicking lightning through controlled electrical stimulation, aiming to stimulate plant and fungi growth. While at an early stage, the potential benefits include a boost in food production and a reduced reliance on pesticides.
Image credits: Eatable Mushrooms
The innovation aligns with historical interest in the impact of external electric fields on plant growth, dating back centuries. 2014 research from Iwate University in Japan explores the effect of high-voltage electrical stimulation on fruit body formation in cultivating mushrooms. Using a compact pulsed power generator, the study applied pulsed high voltage to substrates hosting various mushroom types, including Lyophyllum decastes and Lentinula edodes. The results demonstrated a significant increase in fruit body formation, with mushroom yields improving by 1.3–2.0 times in terms of total weight. Lentinula edodes, for instance, exhibited an improved yield from 160 to 320 g over four cultivation seasons with applied voltages of 50 or 100 kV. However, yields decreased to 240 g when the voltage was increased to 130 kV.
Rainstick's approach to electrical stimulation aligns with these findings, as they use a noncontact technique to create electric fields in the air, achieving promising results in trials with shiitake mushrooms. The startup's modern-day rainstick antenna emits an electric field, resulting in mushrooms growing 20% larger and faster in indoor trials.
Describing their technique as a "variable electric field," Rainstick employs specific frequencies and waveforms to trigger biological switches, influencing growth and inhibiting mold. The startup aims to develop recipes for manipulating germination rates, seed popping, and seed resilience under diverse climate conditions.
As Rainstick progresses, the next phase involves determining an effective business model for scaling up, potentially treating seeds early in their life and selling them to farmers. The startup is constructing a larger machine, powered by solar energy, to treat up to 10 metric tons of seeds per day. Early seeds will be tested by partners, including agriculture firms for cereal crops and seedling nurseries for premium vegetables.
While experts like Giovanni Sena remain cautious about the technology's trustworthiness, the potential benefits of reducing chemical use in agriculture are acknowledged. Rainstick's founder, Darryl Lyons, remains optimistic about the cost-effectiveness of the technology, estimating reasonable prices for the scaling-up process. The incorporation of electrical stimulation findings from Iwate University emphasizes the broader applications of this innovative approach, particularly in fungi cultivation, opening new avenues for sustainable agricultural practices.