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Nanotechnology Breakthrough: 'Plant Nanobionics' Could Detect Explosives

First Posted: Nov 01, 2016 04:22 AM EDT
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MIT engineers converted spinach plants into sensors that can identify explosives. They named their invention "plant nanobionics."

BBC reports that the findings of the research were published in the Nature Materials on October 31. The senior author of the study is Michael Strano, a professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. Meanwhile, the lead authors are Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc and an assistant professor at the University of California and Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate student who has a company called Plantea that will soon develop this technology.

Michael Strano stated that the goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions. He further stated that this is a novel demonstration of how they have overcome the plant/human communication barrier. The researchers theorize plant power could also be utilized to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions like drought, according to MIT.Edu.

In the study, the team of researchers embedded nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes, tiny cylinders of carbon, into the leaves of the spinach plant. To read the signal, the team gleams a laser onto the spinach leaf. This motivates the embedded nanotubes to radiate near-infrared fluorescent light. With these, the researchers can easily know if the explosive sensor has identified anything. If in case there are explosive molecules in the groundwater, the spinach plant could pick them up into the leaves for about 10 minutes.

The signal can be identified with a small infrared camera attached to a Raspberry Pi, a $35 credit card sized computer resembling a computer in the smartphone. It could also be detected with a smartphone by eradicating the infrared filter that most camera phones have, according to the researchers.

Wong said that these sensors provide real-time information from the plant. He further said that it is almost like having the plant talk to humans about the environment they are in.

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