MIT scientists use spinach as bomb detector that relays warning via smartphones

By @vitthernandez on
Spinach is on display at a shop of a food market in Vienna, Austria, April 19, 2016. Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

In the 1960s cartoon “Popeye the Sailor Man,” the main character always opens a can of spinach to boost his strength and win over his enemies. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists just discovered the leafy vegetable has other uses than just food.

In a study published in the Nature Materials journal, the MIT researchers say embedding tiny tubes in the leaves of the spinach plant gives it ability to pick up nitro-aromatics, chemicals found in landmines and other buried munitions. Using a handheld device, real-time information could be relayed wirelessly, BBC reports.

After delivering the nitro-aromatics into the spinach plant taken through the roots and to the leaves directly as droplets, the MIT scientists shone a laser onto the leaf, causing the embedded nanotubes to emit near-infrared fluorescent light.

The emission is detected using a small infrared camera connected to a small, cheap Raspberry PI computer. A smartphone detects the signal when the infrared filter is removed.

MIT Chemical Engineering Professor Michael Strano, co-author of the study, says their work is an important evidence of a principle how plants could be engineered to detect virtually anything. The lab had previously developed carbon nanotubes used as sensors to detect hydrogen peroxide, TNT and sarin, a nerve gas.

“The plants could be used for defence applications, but also to monitor public spaces for terrorism related activities, since we show both water and airborne detection,” Strano says. He adds the plants could be used to monitor groundwater seepage from buried munitions or waste which contains nitro-aromatics.

Strano says the study is a novel demonstration of how to overcome the plant/human communication barrier. He points out the technique is not limited to spinach plants but could be applied to any living plant by turning it into a kind of sensor, Sydney Morning Herald reports.

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