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Bionic plants

Scientists create bionic plants with improved photosynthesis using carbon nanotubes

Thursday, March 27, 2014 by: L.J. Devon, Staff Writer
Tags: bionic plants, photosynthesis, carbon nanotubes

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(NaturalNews) The world's first "robotic" plants have been created by US scientists and can effectively absorb greater amounts of energy from the sun. These bionic plants are advanced at the cellular level, with new biochemical detection functions and improved photosynthesis capabilities. The MIT biochemists and chemical engineers who created the plants recently revealed their work in the journal Nature Materials, opening up a whole new field of research that they like to call "plant nanobionics."

"Plants are very attractive as a technology platform," says Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering and leader of the research team. "They repair themselves, they're environmentally stable outside, they survive in harsh environments, and they provide their own power source and water distribution."

Plants given super powers using carbon nanotubes

Strano and fellow researchers used regular Arabidopsis thaliana plants in their bionic conversion process. A dilution of carbon nanotubes was applied to the underside of Arabidopsis thaliana leaves. The plant absorbed the dilution through its vascular infusion "breathing" process in the same way it normally absorbs carbon dioxide. The absorbed nanotubes worked their way into the plant's chloroplasts. These special photosynthesis-generating cells use chlorophyll to capture and store energy from sunlight.

When the carbon nanotubes found their way into the chloroplasts, a near-infrared fluorescence appeared in the plant -- a bright orange color. These orange-colored nanotubes infiltrated the green leaves, boosting the plant's photosynthesis processes.

Photosynthesis capabilities increased; plant's energy production up 30 percent

After measuring the plant's energy production with and without carbon nanotubes, an average increase in energy of 30 percent was reported when the dilution was infused in the plants. Furthermore, this illumination was used to help the scientists visually detect specific biochemicals and pollutants absorbed into the plant's leaves.

Impressed by the findings, the scientists predicted that, by altering the diameter of the nanotubes, the leaves could gain the ability to capture wavelengths of light they currently can't use. The scientists are working on a way to make the plants reflect other colors of the light spectrum besides green, possibly appearing blue, yellow, orange, red or purple. They hint that further manipulation could give the plants mobile phone signaling power. They even mentioned turning plants into miniature, living street lamps that glow in the dark.

Technology allows plants to visibly show harmful gases - possibilities endless

Their research did not end there. A second dilution was applied to sample plants. This dilution was treated in a way to detect an environmental pollutant produced during combustion processes called nitric oxide gas.

When this dilution was applied to the underside of the leaves, it worked its way into the plants very easily, lighting up areas of the plant that contained nitric oxide gas. Strano said the dilution emits "a near-infrared light signal, like in a TV remote control, that can be read by an external detector."

This pollution-monitoring power may only be the beginning of bionic plant technology. Excited about the endless possibilities that this technology poses, Strano envisions plants that could operate as self-powered devices in airports to detect explosives. They could be used in homes to detect specific pollutants that a person doesn't want in their home.

The scientist may also experiment using electronic nanomaterials. Maybe plants could ultimately be converted into sun-powered battery chargers for phones and put off a signal along with it.

The technology, not yet understood for its long-term effects, has already been proven to make the plants stronger in the short term, increasing their energy absorption potential.

"Right now, almost no one is working in this emerging field," says Giraldo. "It's an opportunity for people from plant biology and the chemical engineering nanotechnology community to work together in an area that has a large potential."

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