Detecting landmines – with spinach

Forget sniffer dogs…we need to talk about spinach.

The team at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have been working to transform spinach plants into a means of detection in the fight against buried munitions such as landmines.

Plant-to-human communication

MIT engineers have transformed spinach plants into sensors that can detect explosives and wirelessly relay that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone. (Learn more: Watch more videos from MIT: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is an independent, coeducational, privately endowed university in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Nanoparticles, plus tiny tubes called carbon nanotubes, are embedded into the spinach leaves where they pick up nitro-aromatics, chemicals found in the hidden munitions.

It takes the spinach approximately ten minutes to absorb water from the ground, including the nitro-aromatics, which then bind to the polymer material wrapped around the nanotube.

But where does the Pi come into this?

The MIT team shine a laser onto the leaves, detecting the altered fluorescence of the light emitted by the newly bonded tubes. This light is then read by a Raspberry Pi fitted with an infrared camera, resulting in a precise map of where hidden landmines are located. This signal can currently be picked up within a one-mile radius, with plans to increase the reach in future.

detecting landmines with spinach

You can also physically hack a smartphone to replace the Raspberry Pi… but why would you want to do that?

The team at MIT have already used the tech to detect hydrogen peroxide, TNT, and sarin, while co-author Prof. Michael Strano advises that the same setup can be used to detect “virtually anything”.

“The plants could be use for defence applications, but also to monitor public spaces for terrorism-related activities, since we show both water and airborne detection”

More information on the paper can be found at the MIT website.