Do you need more proof that we’re living in the future? A group of MIT engineers have found a way for spinach, aka Popeye’s favorite short-term strength booster, to send potentially lifesaving emails regarding explosives in the area.
As the team outlined in a paper published in 2016, the field of plant nanobionics uses nanotechnology to enhance the natural abilities of plants and make them do new tricks. Here’s how this one works: the roots of the spinach plants absorb nitroaromatic compounds such as picric acid from the groundwater, and these transpire up through the stem and into the leaves along with water and other nutrients. When the compounds reach the leaves, they accumulate in the plants’ mesophyll — the inner tissue of the leaves.
A pair of sensors made of single-walled carbon nanotubes are built into the leaves. One sensor is engineered to detect nitroaromatic compounds using near-infrared fluorescent emission, and the other is used as a reference signal. As the the compounds build up in the mesophyll, the IR signal gets stronger. This change is detected by a camera, which triggers an email alert to the researchers within a matter of minutes. After running the experiments with a fancy-pants indium-gallium-arsenide camera, the researchers were able to duplicate the results using a Raspberry Pi and a CCD camera module with the infrared filter removed.
Plants have an ear to the groundwater like none other and absorb a lot of information about the environment around them, so the researchers believe that detecting explosive materials is only the beginning — they could also be harbingers of pollution and other environmental concerns.
Even if there is no threat of landmines in the vicinity, weeds are a problem everywhere. There’s a Raspberry Pi-based solution for those, too.