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Spinach effective in helping detect landmines, according to MIT field work

Tuesday, November 1st 2016 - 10:18 UTC
Full article 2 comments
To read the signal, the researchers shine a laser onto the leaf, prompting the embedded nanotubes to emit near-infrared fluorescent light. To read the signal, the researchers shine a laser onto the leaf, prompting the embedded nanotubes to emit near-infrared fluorescent light.
“Such plants could be used to monitor groundwater seepage from buried munitions or waste that contains nitro-aromatics.” “Such plants could be used to monitor groundwater seepage from buried munitions or waste that contains nitro-aromatics.”

Scientists have transformed the humble spinach plant into a bomb detector. By embedding tiny tubes in the plants' leaves, they can be made to pick up chemicals called nitro-aromatics, which are found in landmines and buried munitions. Real-time information can then be wirelessly relayed to a handheld device.

 The MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) work is published in the Journal Nature Materials. The scientists implanted nano-particles and carbon nano-tubes (tiny cylinders of carbon) into the leaves of the spinach plant. It takes about 10 minutes for the spinach to take up the water into the leaves.

To read the signal, the researchers shine a laser onto the leaf, prompting the embedded nanotubes to emit near-infrared fluorescent light.

This can be detected with a small infrared camera connected to a small, cheap Raspberry Pi computer. The signal can also be detected with a smartphone by removing the infrared filter most have.

Co-author Prof Michael Strano, from MIT in Cambridge, US, said the work was an important proof of principle.

“Our paper outlines how one could engineer plants like this to detect virtually anything,” he told the BBC News website.

Prof Strano's lab has previously developed carbon nanotubes that can be used as sensors to detect hydrogen peroxide, TNT, and the nerve gas sarin.

When the target molecule binds to a polymer material wrapped around the nanotube, it changes the way it glows.

“The plants could be use for defense applications, but also to monitor public spaces for terrorism related activities, since we show both water and airborne detection,” said Prof Strano.

“Such plants could be used to monitor groundwater seepage from buried munitions or waste that contains nitro-aromatics.”

Using the set-up described in the paper, the researchers can pick up a signal from about 1m away from the plant, and they are now working on increasing that distance. (BBC).

Top Comments

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  • Marti Llazo

    Interesting theory but still not ready for prime time. The amount of residual nitroaromatic material around most intact, long-resting antipersonnel mines is extremely difficult to detect, even for a smart spinach, and other quotidian materials such as traces of common fertiliser generate responses nearly identical to those of the mine materials. But there is always someone who will come up with an idea like “Hey, let's plant food crops in the minefields!”

    Nov 01st, 2016 - 01:16 pm 0
  • Voice

    I reckon the planters will detect the mines first...

    Nov 01st, 2016 - 01:34 pm 0
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