Agricultural Growing Towers, Atmospheric Electrostatics

A unique new way of enhancing the growth and yield of field crops may exist. It does not involve any dangerous chemicals, fertilizers, or genetic experimentation. It is based on entirely on enhancing a natural phenomena, atmospheric electricity.

The approach is a new way of enhancing an existing aspect of natural plant growth. Without adding unnatural chemicals or fertilizers, and without messing with the genetic makeup of the plants, a significantly greater crop yield should be available. Even better, the fruits, vegetables and herbs grown should taste far better than the products of modern "enhanced" growing. Instead of tomatoes that look like tomatoes but do not have much taste at all, the tomatoes produced with this method should be just as tasty and succulent as the tomatoes we remember from long ago!

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As early as 1747, Jean Antoine Nollet noticed that plant transpiration increased in the presence of an electrical field. In 1770, a Professor Gardini in Turin, Italy, hung wires above a garden and soon found that many of the plants began to die, but they revived when the wires were removed. When he heard that the Montgolfier brothers had flown a balloon a decade later, he immediately thought that there might be value in collecting atmospheric electricity high up and transferring it to a garden or field. (This is quite similar to what is being proposed here!)

About the same time, an Italian physicist named Giuseppe Toaldo found that plants (jasmine bushes) growing adjacent to a lightning rod conductor wire grew tremendously larger than identical plants a few feet away! (Almost ten times as tall!) Again, roughly the same time, an Abbe Bertholon did a variety of plant growing experiments that involved electricity, and specifically atmospheric electricity, and he also came to the conclusion that atmospheric electricity was the best fertilizer!

In 1845, an Edward Solly in Britain did experiments similar to Gardini's and had similar results. Of seventy experiments, 19 turned out to have beneficial effects, but about the same number had deleterious effects. These experiments were done with artificial electricity rather than natural atmospheric electricity.

Many following experimenters added to the evidence on these phenomena. The Finn Selim Lemström reported a number of successes in 1902, often a 50% increase in plant growth. The strawberries in his garden more than doubled in yield, and tasters all agreed that they tasted far better and sweeter, too. His experiments on barley plants gave an increased yield of about 1/3. Lemström did an extensive series of tests on many different types of plants in many different climates and conditions. His results, published in Electro Cultur, were translated into English two years later as Electricity in Agriculture and Horticulture. Soon after, Sir Oliver Lodge (in London) suspended a grid of wires on insulators attached to tall poles, and he achieved great increases in crop yields. His yield of Canadian Red Fife wheat was 40% higher per acre than normal. Subjective opinion of bakers who used that wheat's flour also was that the quality of the wheat was better. Following that, an associate, John Newman had similar results with several different crops. His wheat and potato yields were increased by 20%, his strawberries were more prolific, more succulent and sweeter, his sugar beets actually tested as having greater sugar content. Newman's results were published in the Fifth Edition of the Standard Handbook for Electrical Engineers.

During the early Twentieth Century, countless researchers looked into every permutation of the effects of electricity on growing plants. In many cases, they achieved amazing results. In nearly all the cases, they used electricity that was artificially produced, by generators, batteries, or other man-made devices. From a scientific point-of-view, this approach is admirable. Science always likes to make as many variables as possible constant, so they can get repeatable results regarding the one variable they are specifically interested in. Unfortunately, this sort of approach is very unnatural.

On a nice, clear day, the Earth has a negative charge and the atmosphere has a positive charge. During storms, this polarity of the situation reverses. On that clear day, each vertical yard of altitude separates areas of about 100 volts of natural atmospheric electrical potential. A corn plant (or a human) that is six feet tall normally experiences an electrical potential difference of about 200 volts between its roots (in the ground) and its upper leaves.

On a different but related area, it is generally accepted that natural vitamins in our foods are better for us than artificially created vitamins that are seemingly identical. Obviously, there must be subtle differences. The current premise is that the same is true of electrical effects on plants. Even though a multitude of experiments have shown both good and bad effects of artificially produced electricity, the logic here is that it might be better to just enhance the naturally occurring electricity.

The Theory

The theory that this approach is based on is extremely well established, and so the desired electrostatic effect is certainly true.

It has been known for centuries that electrostatic charge only exists on the surface of an electrical conductor and that the relative density of charge is related to the shape or radius of such a conductor. A large smooth metal ball can be charged quite highly, while a pointy conductor tends to disperse its charge to its minimally conductive surroundings. As an example, a Van de Graf static electrical generator always has a mushroom like ball on top of it. A ten-inch diameter ball on a Van de Graf can maintain a charge of several hundred thousand volts of static electricity. At the other extreme, the lightning rods on buildings are very pointy-shaped in order to quickly discharge any static electricity that might have accumulated in the building.

It is also well known that natural atmospheric static electricity generally has a constant potential rate for height. As mentioned above, at six feet high, the static atmospheric potential is usually around 200 volts. At sixty feet (ten times as high), it is generally about 2,000 volts (ten times as much).

Now, consider the possibility of placing a metal sphere 60 feet above the ground (and insulated from it). That sphere would immediately collect atmospheric electricity on its surface, so that surface would quickly and continuously be at about 2,000 volts. Now, attach an electrically conductive wire to that sphere and bring the end of the wire down near the ground. The electrical wire would conduct the voltage (as an electrical current in it), so we would still measure 2,000 volts at the bottom end of that wire.

Now, don't get any ideas about making electricity in this way! The CURRENT that is possible from atmospheric electricity is incredibly low (except during lightning storms!) Depending on temperature and humidity and many other things, this current can be on the scale of one-millionth of an ampere. So, even though the VOLTAGE sounds impressive at 2,000 volts, the PRODUCT of voltage and current (which is POWER or WATTS) is, like, 0.002 watts. By the way, on an extremely dry day in winter, if you walk across a carpet and get an unintentional static charge, THAT unintentional charge is sometimes as high as 20,000 volts! In each of these cases, the very low currents involved make it so there is no safety danger involved, even though the voltages are high.

Getting back to our theory, we have 2,000 volts of static electricity available now near the ground. Now imagine arranging a pointy-shaped conductor (pointed downward) to be attached to the end of this wire. The pointiness of the end will generally cause a dissipation of the static electricity that was on the wire and on the sphere up above, exactly like a lightning rod does.

The effect of this arrangement is that static electricity is being dissipated at the bottom end, so the sphere must then immediately collect more from the atmosphere up above, and a current would exist in the wire bringing that 2,000 volt atmospheric static electricity down to a point six feet above the ground. The net result is that the six-foot space between that pointy end and the ground, which NORMALLY has a 200 volt electrical potential gradient across it, now has a 2,000 volt gradient. The atmospheric electricity in that area is now exactly the same as normal atmospheric electricity, but ten times as strong.

Notice that no machinery is involved, and no electronics or generators are needed. NOTHING artificial is involved. This approach just condenses sixty vertical feet of natural atmospheric static electricity into a six-foot high space! There are no machines that could ever fail and nothing that would ever need repair!

The Experiment

Since every plant in every field is normally continuously subjected to natural VARYING electrical fields and potential differences, and since the many earlier researchers have noted a variety of reactions of plants to electrical stimuli, it seems reasonable to try an experiment that maintains all the variation and texture of the naturally occurring electrical fields, but just to increase its magnitude or intensity. A reasonable proposal would be to try an experiment that would somehow amplify the atmospheric electricity by a factor of TEN to see what results develop. The theory described above and the apparatus described below should accomplish this.

Consider a garden, with a variety of vegetables being grown. At intervals of about twelve feet in both directions, we bore postholes two feet deep. In these holes we placed standard 4-inch diameter, 10-foot long, ABS plastic drain pipe sections (any type of plastic should do as long as the specific plastic does NOT conduct electricity!) The eight-foot tall insulating poles would then support a horizontal continuous grid of light gauge metal chicken wire. Effectively, we have created a horizontal open lattice of chicken wire as a suspended surface eight feet above the ground.

A multitude of pieces of extremely light gauge flexible bare wire would then be wrapped around and hung from this latticework. The free end points of these short pieces of metal would only extend a few inches below the chicken wire. The final appearance might resemble tinsel hanging from a Christmas tree. If tinsel would not quickly blow away, it would have been a good choice for this function.

This represents the bulk of what is necessary for this type of "natural static electricity fertilizer". There remains one other important part of this apparatus, an atmospheric electricity collector. Several possibilities come to mind. Two are presented here.

The First Type of Collector

The first is a permanent, rigid tower, 80 feet tall, with a three-foot diameter metal sphere atop it. The tower should not have any sharp points or corners on it, and the sphere should also not have any areas of very small radius (convex) parts. An experimental tower I once built consisted of an empty (and cleaned!) old propane cylinder, upside down, welded to the top of a 70-foot length of 2-inch standard Schedule 40 steel pipe. A tower built as described here could have considerable weight (and inertia, in gusty winds). However, it is critical that the metal of the tower NOT continue to the ground. It would be a metal tower from eight feet above the ground up to the top sphere, but the lowest eight feet must be insulating materials. In my experimental tower(s), I welded a grid of 2x2x1/8 angle irons (with braces) to the bottommost end of the pipe. I placed the tower structure directly above one of the ABS pipes mentioned above and I used nearby ABS pipes to support and stabilize the outermost ends of the angle irons. It may be possible to use some other strong configuration of the plastic pipes that support the chicken wire grid.

In my experiments, I found that strong winds repeatedly blew the tower over because the ABS pipes would easily pull up out of the ground. Deeper or more permanent installing of them in the postholes would probably have eliminated this problem.

Rather than pursuing that approach, I chose to try the alternate available method of stabilizing the tower for windy conditions, a set of guy wires, such as radio transmitting towers have. Again, such guy wires for this use must be insulated from the ground. Therefore, they could not be all metal or otherwise conductive.

In my experiments, I chose to try four tow ropes used for water skiing. Near the top of the tower, just below the ball of the empty tank, I permanently mounted a short non-metal sleeve ABS pipe tightly around the pipe of the tower. This had no function except to keep a loop of the ski rope from sliding down the pipe of the tower. Once the tower was up and in place, I first loosely attached the four ski ropes to normal earth anchors a distance beyond the edges of the garden plot. I then alternately tightened them so the guy wire system was eventually as tight as I could make it.

This configuration seemed very strong and stable and all of the metal of the tower was insulated from the ground by about eight feet under the chicken wire grid. Unfortunately, there was still a problem! Have you ever seen that movie where the Tacoma Narrows Bridge started oscillating back and forth and eventually destroyed itself, in a moderate but constant wind? Well, I discovered a similar situation. It turned out that the height of the tower had a resonant frequency, which is always true. It turned out that if a wind came at a certain moderate speed (in my case, about 20 mph) for an extended time, the big, heavy ball at the top of the tower began to slightly oscillate at that frequency. The fact that I was using stretchable ski tow ropes as guy wires was the central problem. The give in those ropes allowed to ball to keep increasing in distance of oscillation, and the tower eventually was slowly swaying back and forth more than a few feet. Eventually, one of the ski ropes snapped and everything came down. Possibly, some non-stretchy, non-conductive plastic rope or even plastic guy pipes might accomplish the necessary stability. Another possibility would seem to be to only have the first ten feet of guy line be this non-conductive nylon or plastic, and the remainder of the guy lines would then be normal stainless steel. This variation would eliminate 90% of the stretchiness but still completely electrically insulate the tower from the ground. Yet another possibility would be to attach a pyramid shaped set of rigid plastic pipes around the top of the tower, with stainless steel guy wires attached to the outer ends of those pyramid legs. This would eliminate ALL of the stretchiness of plastic rope while maintaining the necessary electrical insulation.

This configuration accomplishes the aspects of the theory described above. The sphere on the top of the tower would tend to attract and accumulate atmospheric electricity, at the 80-foot altitude, meaning that generally nearly 3000 volts of atmospheric (static) electricity is present on the surface of the sphere. The smooth shape of the sphere and the absence of sharp edges or points, allows the sphere to very easily retain this level of voltage. The metal of the tower would conduct this static electricity downward, causing the chicken wire grid to become charged at slightly less than 3,000-volt potential. The many hanging tinsel-like downward pointing pieces represent the only sharp points on the metal of the apparatus. As described above, this multitude of small-radius, downward-pointed tinsel-like points act to dissipate or bleed off whatever static electrical potential exists in the metal apparatus, downward toward the plants. The sphere at the top continually collects atmospheric electricity, which then is conducted downward and continuously expelled toward the ground from the eight-foot height of the chicken wire lattice.

Anything under the chicken wire would then be subject to an electric field exactly like the normal atmospheric electric field, but with ten times higher electrical potential. Instead of 100 volts per yard of altitude, the field present there would be 1000 volts per yard of altitude.

A Word About Safety

These all sound like high voltages to be dealing with! Well, they are, but the currents present are very, very low (during good weather). When you get a static electric shock during the Winter from petting a cat or walking across a carpet, you actually can generate many thousands of volts of potential, but with exceedingly low current. That's why you can get a big spark from a doorknob without much pain. In clear weather, that should always be the case with this apparatus.

HOWEVER! Under imminently stormy conditions, atmospheric potentials can increase drastically, achieving extremely high levels that result in lightning bolts. Keep in mind that this apparatus would still be multiplying the natural electric potential by the factor of ten! This could have two very serious implications.

The Second Type of Collector

Considering the various complications described for a fixed tower, this alternative seems to have a number of advantages. It involves a metal-foil-covered small weather balloon, tethered to the chicken wire grid by an electrically conducting wire and a parallel thin plastic tube. Over extended time, any balloon loses some of its contained gas by seepage through the balloon membrane, and such a tube could allow easily replenishing it.

This configuration should probably also allow a method of winding the wire (and tubing) on a reel. Just like a giant fishing line, it would be possible to reel the balloon in and down when storms approached. An automated system could even reel it halfway down if potentially dangerous conditions existed under the chicken wire.

The total cost of this version is quite low. If Helium was used as the balloon's gas, replenishing it might represent the greatest part of the operational expense. Hydrogen might be a viable alternative here. A simple and inexpensive continuous chemical reaction on the ground could generate the very small amount of Hydrogen necessary for replenishment. Under these conditions, the operating expense of this system would be virtually nil.

All of the functionality of the rigid tower/sphere would exist, but with far less weight and cost involved. It is hard to say what might happen if lightning would hit the balloon, but it would probably pop and need to be replaced. A normal balloon is probably not sturdy enough or weather-resistant enough to last a useful period of time.

Conclusion

Presently, huge amounts of chemical fertilizers are used to increase crop yield by a few per cent. The fertilizers are costly, time-consuming to spread or inject, and represent potential pollution concerns for the environment. They also have shown evidence of losing their beneficial effects over an extended period of time.

Numerous experiments over the past three centuries suggest that this proposed apparatus may increase yields by a great deal, by (nearly) entirely natural methods, with NO use of polluting chemicals, and with virtually no operating expense or time usage.

It certainly seems worthy of investigating further. It is my hope that some interested party would contact me to explore a garden sized or field sized trial.

A number of variables exist. The ratio of tower height to chicken wire height (potential multiplication ratio) is probably the most significant. It seems likely that greater ratios would produce greater benefits, up to some point where the plants are overwhelmed. Additionally, it would be useful to discover if the diameter of the collecting sphere is significant in crop yield. The proposed diameters are far in excess of what should normally be needed to maintain the level of electrical potential on the sphere that we are considering. The chicken wire could probably easily be raised to ten or twelve feet, so a tractor could pass underneath. The quantities, distribution, and lengths of the tinsel-like projections might be significant.

The time and cost involved in doing such experiments seem minimal, especially when considering the potential benefits. Some of those old researchers describe unbelievable results, like jasmine bushes (which are normally 4 feet tall) growing to 30 feet! I don't know about the validity of such claims, but even if crop yields were increased by a modest 5 per cent, the benefits would still easily outweigh the expense and trouble. And, if crop yields increased by 20% or 40%, as some old evidence suggests, well!

This is pretty much the whole story as it presently exists. If, for some reason, you choose to proceed without being in contact with me, please be VERY, VERY, VERY careful about those electrocution concerns I mentioned. They may be very real! I would hope you DID stay in contact with me, so I could add your new findings and evidence to this page, for the benefit of others in the future.

In my early experiments, my tower(s) fell over quite a number of times. Each time, it was damaged and needed to be repaired, and the re-raising process was pretty involved for me since I did not have access to a high-lift crane! Eventually, I felt that the tower was no longer salvageable, and my life soon included other complications, and that farm property was sold, so I have not further pursued the project. Since then, I have lived in or near civilization, and I have doubted that neighbors would appreciate the idea of possibly attracting lightning hits to the area. I have always wished that some area safely away from houses and cities would become available again to me (or someone) for additional research. It may turn out that the danger of lightning hits is less than I fear. But, in case not, I don't want anyone or anything to be a victim.

I had done all of my tower experiments about a thousand feet (nearly a quarter mile) from my farmhouse, because of these concerns. Until a substantial body of research evidence accumulates, I don't think it would be a good idea to place such a tower near any buildings, because of its likely tendency to attract lightning to the area. It wouldn't make sense to increase the chance that a house or barn had an increased danger of being hit by lightning as a result of a nearby tower.


First Developed: 1979,
First Published on Web: Jul 8, 1999

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago