A milestone has been recorded in agricultural technology from the laboratories of Linkoping University in Sweden, as scientists have unveiled an electrically-conductive “soil” engineered to foster exceptional growth in crops, particularly barley seedlings, marking a potential 50 per cent surge in growth within a 15-day period. This innovative soilless cultivation method, termed hydroponics, harnesses a sophisticated root system activated through a novel cultivation substrate.
An Associate Professor at Linkoping University, Eleni Stavrinidou, has underscored the critical importance of this advancement amidst mounting global challenges. “The world population is burgeoning, and climate change looms large. It’s evident that existing agricultural methods alone cannot sustain our planet’s food needs”, said Stavrinidou. With hydroponics, the prospect of cultivating food in urban landscapes under meticulously-controlled conditions becomes a tangible reality. The team’s technology, which is an electrically-conductive cultivation substrate christened e-Soil, is tailored explicitly for hydroponic cultivation. Published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their groundbreaking research had highlighted the remarkable acceleration in barley seedling growth by up to 50 per cent within two weeks when their roots were electrically-stimulated.
Using hydroponic cultivation, plants thrive sans soil, reliant solely on water, nutrients, and a supportive substrate for root attachment. This enclosed system facilitates water recycling, ensuring precise nutrient delivery to each seedling by minimising water usage and optimal nutrient retention distinguish hydroponics from conventional methods. Moreover, the vertical cultivation potential of hydroponics, using towering structures, maximises space efficiency. While crops like lettuce, herbs, and select vegetables are already successfully cultivated using this method, grains have typically not been part of hydroponic agriculture, except for fodder purposes. However, the recent breakthrough has challenges this norm by showcasing the viability of cultivating barley seedlings hydroponically with significantly-improved growth rates attributed to electrical stimulation.
Stavrinidou also explained that “This approach accelerates seedling growth while conserving resources. Yet, the precise biological mechanisms involved remain elusive. What we do know is that seedlings process nitrogen more efficiently under electrical stimulation, although the exact impact remains unclear”. The Encyclopedia of Soils in the Environment (2023) has revealed that Digital Soil Mapping (DSM) entails the creation and population of spatial soil information systems by numerical models inferring the spatial and temporal variations of soil types and soil properties from soil observation and knowledge derived from related environmental variables. DSM offers improved soil inventories, interpretations, and decision support systems when compared to analog maps. In addition, databases that form the core of a digital soil map are well suited for documenting what was learned about soil resources during the previous era of analog mapping, for extending those interpretations to new areas, and for evaluating and interpreting new environmental data. Digital soil databases also support the development of new information on soil attributes that address modern questions in resource management and environmental science, among others.