The humble spinach plant is no longer humble – it is now a bomb detector.
Scientists have embedded tiny tubes in the leaves of these plants so that they detect chemicals referred to as nitro-aromatics. These are the types found in landmines and munitions.
The information can then be transferred to a handheld device wirelessly.
This work was done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published in Nature Materials.
How to research was done
In order to carry out this research, scientists implanted carbon nanotubes and nanoparticles into the spinach plant leaves. Nanotubes are tiny carbon cylinders. The spinach requires approximately 10 minutes for it to absorb water into the leaves.
So as to receive the signal, a laser was shone onto the leaf and this prompted nanotubes to emit close-to-infrared fluorescent light.
Small infrared camera connected to a small, cheap Raspberry Pi computer can then be used to detect this. Also, if the infrared filter found on a smartphone is removed, the mobile phone can also be used to detect the signal.
Professor Michael Strano, a co-author of the report said that this was an important research that proved an important principle.
“Our paper outlines how one could engineer plants like this to detect virtually anything,” he told the BBC News website.
Some of the previous works that have been done in professor Strano’s lab include development of nanotubes to detect TNT, hydrogen peroxide and the nerve gas sarin.
Useful in defense
He said that these plants can be used for defense applications. Besides that, they are usable in monitoring public spaces for any terrorism related activities.
“Such plants could be used to monitor groundwater seepage from buried munitions or waste that contains nitro-aromatics.”
While describing the paper, the researchers were able to detect a signal 1 m away but they are now working to improve on the distance.