Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have transformed spinach plants into sensors capable of detecting explosives, powered by nanotechnology and can wirelessly relay information to a handheld device.
The researchers took an ordinary spinach plants and embedded them with carbon nanotubes, capable of detecting nitroaromatics — compounds often used in bombs and land mines. If the chemicals were present in groundwater, the plant will take in the water and begin to emit a flourescent signal within 10 minutes, alerting the observers to any potential problems.
The plants can detect even subtle changes in its surroundings. With nanotechnology, plants can signal these changes to humans. The researchers said that by having that information, humans can quickly address a security issue or prepare for situations like drought.
“Plants are very environmentally responsive. They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access,” said Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team.
Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team said, “Plants are very environmentally responsive. They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”
Dr. Strano, in two years time, with his colleagues made the first demo in the field, using nanoparticles to improve plants’ photosynthesis . The plants also acted as sensors for nitric oxide, that is produced by burning fossil fuels.
The field has come to be known as “plant nanobionics” that allows a plant embedded with certain nanoparticles to expect a new function.
On the sensing process to work, the research team applied a solution of nanoparticles to the underside of the spinach leaves. As it takes on water, any molecules of nitroaromatics attach themselves to a polymer wrapped around the nanotubes, causing a flourescent glow within 10 minutes of the plants absorbing water.
There is an infrared camera that picks up the change. The glow factor signal as the control mechanism that makes it easy to tell when there’s a signal coming form many plants.
The camera relays the signal to a pocket-sized Raspberry Pi computer, when in turn sends an email providing information to observers about what’s happening.
Researchers said that any living plant can be deployed in this way. Different nanotubes will glow when detected different compounds which means that plants can be designed to communicate about any changes in their environment.
Professor Strano told BBC that plants in public spaces could be used to detect terrorism-related activities, as the plants can also pick up changes in the air and in water as well.
“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant-human communication barrier,” Strano told MIT News.