MIT Researchers Transform Spinach into Explosives Detector

Interesting Engineering

Maybe Popeye the Sailor Man was on to something with his use of spinach in times of trouble.

Recent studies proved that spinach goes beyond being a superfood. It can also be an explosives detector. Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed spinach plants which can detect and alert about explosives.

MIT engineers embedded spinach leaves with carbon nanotubes. This allowed plants to gather information via sensors and send the info wirelessly to a handheld device. The approach, called “plant nanobionics” by researchers, is one of the first demonstrations of engineering electronic systems into plants.

How does it work?

The spinach leaves detected chemicals called nitroaromatics. These compounds can be found in landmines and other types of explosives. If the compounds can be detected in the water sampled by the plant, the nanotubes emit a signal. The fluorescent alert can be read via an infrared camera.

That camera can be added to a smartphone or computer. If anything gets detected, the camera sends an email to the user.

spinach[Image Courtesy of Pixabay]

The researchers put sensors into the spinach via "vascular infusion." This technique puts nanoparticles into the underside of the leaf where most photosynthesis takes place.

Just in case one set of signals misread the water, the researchers installed a second set of carbon nanotubes to compare signals.

It takes the plants just 10 minutes to get water into its leaves and determine if the water has nitroaromatics.

The researchers read the signal by shining lasers on the leaf. This prompts the tubes to emit the fluorescent light. The team said signals can be detected via smartphone. They simply removed the infrared filter most camera phones have

The signal could also be detected with a smartphone by removing the infrared filter that most camera phones have, the researchers say.

The setup lets researchers get signal from about 1 meter away from the plant. Michael Strano, lead researcher for the team, said they're working on increasing that distance.

“This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” Strano said.

SEE ALSO: CellPod: The 3-D Printed Bio-Tech Gadget Grows Plants by Cells at Home

Strano is the senior author of the paper describing the nanobionic plants in the Oct. 31 2016, issue of Nature Materials. The paper’s lead authors are Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate student who founded the company Plantea to develop this technology, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside.

Watch the video here:


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