Business

How a Canadian farmer plans to kill weeds by blowing off a little steam

It may look a little like a Zamboni, but a Saskatchewan farmer has unveiled a machine that will target weeds with steam, not herbicides.

X-Steam-inator targets problem plants with scalding spritz instead of herbicides

Organic farmer Ron Gleim stands with a prototype of his patented X-Steam-inator, designed to control weeds with steam, not herbicide. (X-Steam-inator)

Fed up with the weeds on his organic operation, third-generation farmer Ron Gleim went to work on a better way to battle the problem plants.

But what started with testing scalding water on the vexing vegetation around his yard led to something bigger: the X-Steam-inator.

The patented machine — a prototype of which looks a bit like a Zamboni — is designed to destroy weeds with a spray of hot steam, not herbicides.

"Four years ago we started using hot water and then over the next three years we kind of started to develop the steam," said Gleim, who farms near the village of Chaplin, Sask. 

"About a year and a half ago, I put a patent on it and now here we are."

A corn farmer in Illinois sprays the weed killer glyphosate on a field. North America producers spend billions annually on weed control. (Seth Perlman/The Associated Press)

It may be too early to say whether the X-Steam-inator — unveiled recently at farm shows in Saskatchewan — is the start of a new chapter in the age-old battle between farmers and weeds.

But it certainly won't hurt.

Weed control efforts cost North American farmers billions of dollars annually, and the fight has been made even harder by a growing number of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Nothing is going to become immune to steam.— Ron Gleim

The X-Steam-inator uses electricity — not boilers, pressure or flames — to create steam on demand from a ceramic-insulated boom. 

Though not a replacement for traditional sprayers, the company says the machine would help control weed growth prior to spring seeding. They also envision the machine being configured to treat weeds between crop rows.

While the company has more work and research to do, the prototype appears to hold promise on a couple of fronts.

For one, it could help combat herbicide-resistant weeds.

Experts say Canada ranks third in terms of the number of weeds resistant to one or more herbicides, behind the United States and Australia.

"Nothing is going to become immune to steam," Gleim said.

Development of the steam machine also comes amid continued scrutiny of the popular weedkiller glyphosate. 

The X-Steam-inator is not billed as a replacement for traditional sprayers, but the manufacturer says the machine would help control weed growth prior to spring seeding. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Gleim said he doesn't have concerns about glyphosate, but he believes his innovation could help conventional farmers save money by reducing herbicide use. 

"This is going to be sold on its economics, and that's how it should be sold," he said.

Using steam to battle weeds isn't a novel idea.

François Tardif, a professor of weed science at the University of Guelph, said heat has been used in multiple forms over the years, including direct flame on stubble.

When it comes to producing boiling water or steam to destroy plant tissue, "a big hurdle is the amount of energy required to produce enough heat to be viable," Tardif said in an email.

The harsh reality is that we certainly cannot rely on herbicides like we used to.— Rob Gulden

Steam-producing machines — including those equipped with wands for spot treatments — have been used to control weeds on smaller acreages with high-value crops and orchards. 

But Gleim intends for his machine to be used practically in commercial grain crop production as well as organic operations. He said he'll be working with engineers to improve its efficiency and use less power. He said the machine will require less water than herbicide applications.

Rob Gulden, a weed expert at the University of Manitoba, said innovation — whether it's in machines, crop management or something else — is an important part of improving weed control.

"The harsh reality is that we certainly cannot rely on herbicides like we used to," Gulden said.  "Some of these other technologies — whatever they may be — certainly are another tool in the toolbox to manage weeds."

Andrew Hammermeister, director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada at Dalhousie University, said he was excited to see such technology emerging.

"To me, the environmental and economic motivations behind adopting technologies like this are much more important than dealing with herbicide-resistant weeds or market concerns over glyphosate," he said in an email.

The company says there's work to be done to determine the interaction of steam temperature, travel speed, plant size and plant density for effective control.

If all goes as hoped, the company says the first units should be ready in 2021.

About the Author

Tony Seskus

Senior Producer Western Digital Business Unit

Tony Seskus is senior producer with CBC's Western Business unit in Calgary. He's written for newspapers and wire services for more than 25 years on three continents. In Calgary, Tony has reported on the energy sector and federal politics.

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