Northwest company develops ‘plant sunscreen’ to combat our climate crisis
SEATTLE– A northwest company says one of the solutions to our growing climate crisis is right here in front of our eyes– every single day. Oregon-based Solbere says we don’t need to plant more trees, though that would help too. They say we just have to make the plants all around us work better and more efficiently. Their product works like a sunscreen. Their data shows it improves plant health and crop productivity too– and it’s already being used on crops here in Washington State and all over the west coast.
Solbere’s new technology is based on an agricultural practice that’s more than two thousand years old. The ancient Greeks would apply white clay– or it’s chemical name, calcium carbonate– on the leaves of grape vines, and on olive and fig trees to keep them from getting sun scalded.
"Plants do need help," says George Baker. "They don't move, they're there."
George Baker grew to love agriculture as a kid helping harvest berries on his family's Willamette Valley farm outside of Eugene. He's now president of Solbere, pronounced soul-bear.
"Plants use [ultra violet] light to charge their batteries to get themselves going-- and then they hide from it."
The Oregon State grad didn't think his knowledge as an agriculturalist would lean to a plant-based, planet-saving way to fix our climate crisis.
"And what's so interesting," says Baker, "when you look at plants and how they deal with the sun. And you can you get that sun to be a little more efficient with the plant."
George and his team looked at plant cells under an electron microscope. Specifically, they looked at the parts of the cell called chloroplasts and where they hang out. Chloroplasts are the parts of the cell that conduct photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the plant process that breathes in carbon dioxide out of the air and turns it into food for the plant. The plants then exhale oxygen. Carbon dioxide is the one of the gasses that helps trap in heat in the Earth's atmosphere and that an overwhelming majority of climatologists say trigger a series of issues of weird and unusual weather around the globe. Scientists theorize that heat waves get hotter, cold snaps can be colder, droughts would last longer and soggy areas could get deluged. Getting plants to take in more carbon dioxide would do some good things-- offseting the stuff humans put in the air when we burn fossil fuels to get around or make electricity.
"We found that during the exposure to UV light," says Baker, "inside the plant the chloroplasts like to hide and moved to the side of the cell wall and allow the sunlight to go through."
Their product allows the plant's chloroplasts to tolerate the sunlight and heat longer. Their studies show these parts of the plant cell hang out longer facing the sun and keep working. And they'd keep working when the sun overhead would be too bright or the conditions too hot-- but their treatment only holds off the heat for about an hour or so. But, that's all it would need to get through the peak heat of the day.
Solbere's data shows most plants keep working, using that light about 15 percent more efficiently. But for some species, like our northwest Douglas Fir-- the plant uses the light about 50 percent better.
"It increases the growth in a very natural way, it's just how it always does it. It doesn't alter anything," says Baker. "It's not genetically modified. It just helps the plant use the sun better."
The spray is nearly all calcium carbonate. A very common mineral that makes up about four percent of the surface of the planet. It's the same chemical as antacid or drywall. While the particular ratio of that and other natural earthen materials are their trade secrets-- what's not a secret is who is using it.
Solbere claims among their clients: most apple orchards in Central Washington, many pistachio and almond farms in California. For these trees Baker says it helps them retain water too, which means they need less of it-- and Solbere claims the trees are less stressed and therefore not as likely to burn.
"We took that piece of science and practicality and looked at it with a fine toothed comb you might say," says Baker.
So this ancient practice of using calcium carbonate with a 21st century scientific twist could even help tame our catastrophic western wildfires. All the while, pulling tons and tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at the same time.
"We're like the Teslas for the forest," says Baker.
Solbere is not the only company working on this kind of a product. The holy grail of clients for them would be the federal government. And George tells Q13 News they're working on that front. They'd like to spray this completely natural compound over Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands-- the two biggest land owners in the western United States.