Path to Zero
Path to Zero
3.12 - Agricultural Innovations That Help Curtail Climate Change

In this episode of Path to Zero, our focus is on technological advancements in agriculture that are helping farmers cut or eliminate the use of harmful chemicals, as well as reduce carbon emissions.

Some faculty members at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln have brought applied research to the market through an innovation known as flame weeding.

Our guest is Dr. George Gogos, a professor of Engineering and Applied Mechanics. The university’s research led to the launch of a startup company which manufactures equipment that uses heat for certified organic weed control.

The technology uses propane heat to kill weeds without damaging the surrounding crop. The practice has become popular with organic farming and now conventional growers are also seeing the benefits of flame weeding.

Flame Weeding History

According to Gogos, the practice of flame weeding, also known as Flaming, goes back to the 19th century. The first known patents on using heat to kills weeds were in the 1860s. Flaming gained popularity in the first third of the 20th century and continued through the 1960s until pesticides re-placed industry attentions. The practice regained popularity in the early 1990s with the organic food movement.

A colleague of Gogos at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Stevan Z. Knezevic in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, witnessed flame weeding while on a sabbatical in Sweden and launched research to improve the method. He approached Dr. Gogos in the College of Engineering because his expertise is in combustion science.

The research guided the development of new equipment and the founding of a company, Agricultural Flame Innovations (AFI). The company’s flame weeders kill the weeds without causing damage to the surrounding crop. “Since we started selling flame weeders for row crops in 2012, we have been growing at about 35% per year,” says Dr. Gogos.

Photo courtesy AFI

Flaming Benefits

The flame weeder consists of torch ends and burners connected to a propane tank mounted onto the back of a tractor. The burners produce a carefully controlled flame that briefly passes over weeds. The heat essentially explodes the weeds’ cells, disrupting water and nutrient flow, killing the leaves and preventing photosynthesis, and turning the visible portion of the weed into ash. The ash mixes with soil and is not harmful to other plants.

Photo courtesy AFI

Unlike herbicides, a flame weeder does not contaminate; it is environmentally safe because it does not expose humans, pets, wildlife, groundwater, and soil to toxic substances. Herbicides also kill important microorganisms in the soil that benefit crops. Gogos says another big benefit to flame weeding is the heat causes very little impact to soil microorganisms. AFI customers report significant increase in yield, with a potential increase in $400 per acre in corn crop revenue.

Additionally, Gogos points out that flame weeding is a “much, much cheaper” weed control method compared to herbicide use.

Carbon Emissions

Tucker asked Gogos how he responds to the perception some might have that using a flame to control weeds is detrimental to climate change. Gogos says the research is clear that flaming produces much lower carbon emissions compared to chemical herbicides.

“The chemical industry is heavy in energy consumption and the application of herbicides and pesticides also create greenhouse gas emissions,” says Gogos. “The propane burns very cleanly. The CO2 that flame weeding is emitting into the air is much smaller than the CO2 produced by herbicides.”