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: http://news.mit.edu/2016/nanobionic-spinach-plants-detect-explosives-1031) Watch more videos from MIT: http://www.youtube.com/user/MITNewsOffice?sub_confirmation=1 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.

17 comments

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And I get credit for telling you about it!

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I’m afraid our automated news ticker beat you to the punch by several hours – but thanks, we do appreciate tips!

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Automated news ticker??

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We scrape the web, broadcast and other media twice a day for mentions – very handy for helping us populate this blog and for news for social media!

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Ahhhh!!I thought it was a raspberry pi server that checks all the time for mentions!!

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Wouldn’t *planting* the spinach be rather dangerous?

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Would the spinach even survive ten minutes in the likes of the desert environments most prone to IEDs etc, let alone absorb enough moisture to act on?

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I think this is more a proof of concept than spinach-ready-to-deploy; I’m sure that the researchers are also thinking about xerophytic plants.

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What happens when Popeye eats spinach embedded with carbon nanotubes??

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Popeye is going to glow in the near infrared when you shine a laser at him. You’ll be able to detect that with a NoIR camera connected to a RPi.

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Careful! Popeye will punch you in near infrared if you shine a laser at him!! ;-)

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Is our military on top of this? Better, did DARPA invent spinach?

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I see a few minor creases that may need some ironing out…
* Landmines may not be always in the habitat most suitable for spinach growing
* Who is going to walk between the landmines to do the measurements?

Seriously, extremely cool. But… Wouldn’t it be easier to just make a number of small (cheap) rovers (4 wheels, a heavy brick, some motors and a PI) that ride over the terrain and detonate any mines under there?

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Not a bad idea

But couldn’t you just throw stones?

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I would say clumps of spinach flying through the air would be hint enough of a landmine without all this nanotube rigamarole.

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Wow who would of thought!!!

Super cool project.

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Cool project!

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