In an era of weed resistance and public concern over chemical use, one company is quite literally making waves: Rootwave is using electricity to zap weeds – but things are only just getting started.
Since it launched in 2012 Rootwave has won a string of awards, including the Lamma Innovation Award, and Amazon’s Innovator of the Year.
“You touch a weed [with the Rootwave product] and it creates a circuit, a flow of electricity” explains Andrew Diprose, the company’s chief executive officer. “The plant’s natural resistance turns this energy into heat, boiling the weed from the root upwards.”
This kills the weed, including the roots, after which the plant decomposes naturally, returning its nutrients to the soil.
Rootwave is cost-comparable to using chemicals, says Mr Diprose and has the added benefit of being more sustainable, particularly if the electricity is sources from renewables. It can be also be used in organic farming and no-till systems, helping to protect soil and keep green-house-gases locked up.
Currently, the technology is being used by hundreds of people as a professional hand-weeder in parks and gardens, says Mr Diprose, including English Heritage and the Environment Agency.
But the big opportunity is in automation so the technology can be scaled for agriculture, he says. “We are concentrating on that now and integrating with partners to develop automatic electrical weeding for arable, vegetable and fruit crops.”
Rootwave is working with machinery company, Steketee, to combine its weed killing technology with visual recognition cameras, so agricultural machinery can automatically identify and zap weeds in arable crops.
The company is also working with SFM, a manufacturer of specialist fruit harvesting machines, and the Small Robot Company, which is automating weeding in arable crops using robots.
While the technology may sound futuristic, the origins of Rootwave’s idea can be traced back a long way.
In the 1890s, the first patent for using electricity to kill weeds was filed, and workmen along railways used it, but it never really took off. Then in the 1970s, people in the US started looking at using electricity and microwaves to kill weeds.
But this was around the same time that chemical herbicides started being used in a big way, so again the development of the technology was put aside.
Mr Diprose’s brother, Robert, then picked up the idea from their father, an electrical engineer at Sheffield University, whose postgraduate project in the 70s had looked at the technology coming out of the US.
The timing was perfect, says Mr Diprose. “The last few years have seen a downward pressure on pesticides,” he says,”with three main pressures.”
The first is weed resistance from the overuse of chemicals. “Even if new formulas come on the market, they might only last 10 or so years until nature starts adapting and developing resistance again,” he explains.
Secondly, policy makers are starting to recognise the health and environmental impacts of chemicals, and the public concern, and so banning and restricting use.
Lastly, there are mounting cases of litigation against the use of agri-chemicals, with cases in the US of millions of dollars worth of compensation awarded to plaintiffs, says Mr Diprose.
With its environmental benefits, he believes Rootwave has a bright future as agriculture searches for greener ways to farm.
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For more information on the competition and £40,000 prize package visit www.aginnovationden.com/