Urban Farming At Home

Growing your own vegetables and herbs can be a laborious process. Lack of space in urban environments makes it even harder. But this smart garden is bringing the window box into the modern age. Much like Nespresso coffee capsules, users ‘plant’ this soil pod… containing the seeds and all the nutrients which are released in sync with the plant’s life cycle.


This is the plastic container they put the growing substrate in here. It has a wick solution, so basically it starts to drain the water from the water tank, and the lamp does the rest of the job. The lamp imitates daylight time, so it’s 16 hours on and 8 hours off. So far we have tested some 7,000 different plants and each growing substrate is designed specifically for this plant,” says Karel Kask, sales Manager, Click and Grow. Estonia-based ‘Click and Grow‘ says it’s tested up to a thousand lighting solutions to ensure optimal growth. The red and white lights deliver the perfect spectrum they say, speeding up growth by 30 to 50 percent, depending on the plant. Each soil pod provides up to 3 harvests. ‘Click and Grow‘ was inspired by NASA technology used to grow food in space. Here, astronauts aboard the International Space Station sample lettuce they’ve grown.

They’re using quite similar soil-based solutions; so they take the soil substrate into space and grow them already in there. They have an automated watering solution. So it’s quite similar to the solution that we do.The Smart Garden 9, its latest and most advanced model, was displayed at this week’s IFA tech fair in Berlin,” adds Kask.

How To Turn Plants Into Bomb-Sniffing Machines

Spinach is no longer just a superfood: By embedding leaves with carbon nanotubes, 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. This is one of the first demonstrations of engineering electronic systems into plants, an approach that the researchers call “plant nanobionics”.


The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team.

In this case, the plants were designed to detect chemical compounds known as nitroaromatics, which are often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals is present in the groundwater sampled naturally by the plant, carbon nanotubes embedded in the plant leaves emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera. The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user.

This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” says Strano, who believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought.

Strano is the senior author of a paper describing the nanobionic plants in  Nature Materials. The paper’s lead authors are Min Hao Wong, an MIT graduate student who has started a company called Plantea to further develop this technology, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at the University of California at Riverside.

Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, says this approach holds great potential for engineering not only sensors but many other kinds of bionic plants that might receive radio signals or change color. “When you have manmade materials infiltrated into a living organism, you can have plants do things that plants don’t ordinarily do,” says McAlpine, who was not involved in the research. “Once you start to think of living organisms like plants as biomaterials that can be combined with electronic materials, this is all possible.”

In the 2014 plant nanobionics study, Strano’s lab worked with a common laboratory plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana. However, the researchers wanted to use common spinach plants for the latest study, to demonstrate the versatility of this technique. “You can apply these techniques with any living plant,” Strano says. So far, the researchers have also engineered spinach plants that can detect dopamine, which influences plant root growth, and they are now working on additional sensors, including some that track the chemicals plants use to convey information within their own tissues. “Plants are very environmentally responsive,” Strano says. “They know that there is going to be a drought long before we do. They can detect small changes in the properties of soil and water potential. If we tap into those chemical signaling pathways, there is a wealth of information to access.”

These sensors could also help botanists learn more about the inner workings of plants, monitor plant health, and maximize the yield of rare compounds synthesized by plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle, which produces drugs used to treat cancer. “These sensors give real-time information from the plant. It is almost like having the plant talk to us about the environment they are in,” Wong says. “In the case of precision agriculture, having such information can directly affect yield and margins.”

Source: http://news.mit.edu/

Could Nanotechnology End Hunger?

Each year, farmers around the globe apply more than 100 million tons of fertilizer to crops, along with more than 800,000 tons of glyphosate, the most commonly used agricultural chemical and the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. It’s a quick-and-dirty approach: Plants take up less than half the phosphorus in fertilizer, leaving the rest to flow into waterways, seeding algae blooms that can release toxins and suffocate fish. An estimated 90 percent of the pesticides used on crops dissipates into the air or leaches into groundwater.

child starving

With the global population on pace to swell to more than nine billion by 2050 amid the disruptions of climate change, scientists are racing to boost food production while minimizing collateral damage to the environment. To tackle this huge problem, they’re thinking small — very small, as in nanoparticles a fraction of the diameter of a human hair. Three of the most promising developments deploy nanoparticles that boost the ability of plants to absorb nutrients in the soil, nanocapsules that release a steady supply of pesticides and nanosensors that measure and adjust moisture levels in the soil via automated irrigation systems.

It’s all part of a rise in precision agriculture, which seeks a targeted approach to the use of fertilizer, water and other resources. Recognizing the potential impact of nanotechnology, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) beefed up funding between 2011 and 2015, from $10 million to $13.5 million. India, China and Brazil are also joining the latest green revolution. Scientists led by Pratim Biswas and Ramesh Raliya at Washington University in St. Louis have harnessed fungi to synthesize nanofertilizer. When sprayed on mung bean leaves, the zinc oxide nanoparticles increase the activity of three enzymes in the plant that convert phosphorus into a more readily absorbable form. Compared to untreated plants, nanofertilized mung beans absorbed nearly 11 percent more phosphorus and showed 27 percent more growth with a 6 percent increase in yield.

Raliya and his colleagues are also developing nanoparticles that enhance plants’ absorption of sunlight and investigating how nanofertilizers fortify crops with nutrients. In a study earlier this year, they found that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles increased levels of the antioxidant lycopene in tomatoes by up to 113 percent. Next, they want to design nanoparticles that enhance the protein content in peanuts. Along with mung beans, peanuts are a major source of protein in many developing countries.

Others are exploring nanoparticles that protect plants against insects, fungi and weeds. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and other institutions recently began field trials that use several types of metal oxide nanoparticles on tomato, eggplant, corn, squash and sorghum plants in areas infected with fungi known to threaten crops. Researchers led by Leonardo Fernandes Fraceto, of the Institute of Science and Technology, São Paulo State University, Campus Sorocaba, are designing slow-release nanocapsules that contain two types of fungicides or herbicides to reduce the likelihood of targeted fungi and weeds developing resistance. Scientists at the University of Tehran are conducting similar research. Still others are working on nanocapsules that release plant growth hormones. Existing technology could increase average yields up to threefold in many parts of Africa.

Transparent Wood Brightens Homes

When it comes to indoor lighting, nothing beats the sun’s rays streaming in through windows. Soon, that natural light could be shining through walls, too. Scientists from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden) have developed transparent wood that could be used in building materials and could help home and building owners save money on their artificial lighting costs. Their material, reported in ACS’ journal Biomacromolecules, also could find application in solar cell windows.

transparent wood

Homeowners often search for ways to brighten up their living space. They opt for light-colored paints, mirrors and lots of lamps and ceiling lights. But if the walls themselves were transparent, this would reduce the need for artificial lighting — and the associated energy costs. Recent work on making transparent paper from wood has led to the potential for making similar but stronger materials. Lars Berglund and colleagues from KTH the wanted to pursue this possibility.

The researchers removed lignin from samples of commercial balsa wood. Lignin is a structural polymer in plants that blocks 80 to 95 percent of light from passing through. But the resulting material was still not transparent due to light scattering within it. To allow light to pass through the wood more directly, the researchers incorporated acrylic, often known as Plexiglass. The researchers could see through the resulting material, which was twice as strong as Plexiglass. Although the wood isn’t as crystal clear as glass, its haziness provides a possible advantage for solar cells. Specifically, because the material still traps some light, it could be used to boost the efficiency of these cells, the scientists note.

Source: http://www.acs.org/

Powered by plants your phone is charged in 2 hours

It’s a common problem across the world. Too many smartphones and not enough electrical sockets to charge them. But thanks to three engineering students from Chile, charging your device may soon be as easy as plugging it into your favorite household plant. The idea sprouted back in 2009 during a chaotic exam week. Desperate to charge their devices, the students stepped outside to the school garden to catch a breath of fresh air and quell their frustrations. That’s when they realized that the plants producing the oxygen they were breathing also produce energy.

biocircuit_buried_in_the_soilCLICK ON THE IMAGE TO ENJOY THE VIDEO
After that, we thought, why don’t they have a socket? Because there are so many plants and living things which have the potential to produce energy, why not?” asks Evelyn Aravena,  electrical engineering and industrial automation student at  Duoc Institute in Valparaiso (Chile).

The trio began prototyping a device they call E-Kaia. It’s a biocircuit buried in the soil that harnesses energy produced by plants during photosynthesis and converts it into electricity. The team explains that the device feeds off the natural energy cycle of a plant.  “There is a complete cycle of the plant and when making this cycle, we decided to incorporate into it, then we would not affect the plant’s growth. And the biocircuit makes an acquisition and transforms it into energy to later make charges of low consumption“, adds Camila Rupchich, also student at Duoc Insitute.

The device can fully charge a smartphone in under two hours. The team is currently fine tuning the biocircuit with the hopes of launching it commercially in late 2016.

Energy From Trees Can Power Everything

Researchers Emily Cranston and Igor Zhitomirsky from the Faculty of Engineering at McMaster University (Canada)  are turning trees into energy storage devices capable of powering everything from a smart watch to a hybrid car.

The scientists are using cellulose, an organic compound found in plants, bacteria, algae and trees, to build more efficient and longer-lasting energy storage devices or capacitors. This development paves the way toward the production of lightweight, flexible, and high-power electronics, such as wearable devices, portable power supplies and hybrid and electric vehicles.

treesUltimately the goal of this research is to find ways to power current and future technology with efficiency and in a sustainable way,” says Cranston, whose joint research was recently published in Advanced Materials.This means anticipating future technology needs and relying on materials that are more environmentally friendly and not based on depleting resources“.

Cellulose offers the advantages of high strength and flexibility for many advanced applications; of particular interest are nanocellulose-based materials. The work by Cranston, an assistant chemical engineering professor, and Zhitomirsky, a materials science and engineering professor, demonstrates an improved three-dimensional energy storage device constructed by trapping functional nanoparticles within the walls of a nanocellulose foam.

Source: http://www.eng.mcmaster.ca/

Bionic Particles To Turn Sunlight Into Fuel

Inspired by fictional cyborgs like Terminator, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Pittsburgh has made the first bionic particles from semiconductors and proteins. These particles recreate the heart of the process that allows plants to turn sunlight into fuel.

Human endeavors to transform the energy of sunlight into biofuels using either artificial materials or whole organisms have low efficiency,” said Nicholas Kotov, the Florence B. Cejka Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan, who led the experiment. A bionic approach could change that. The bionic particles blend the strengths of inorganic materials, which can readily convert light energy to electron energy, with biological molecules whose chemical functions have been highly developed through evolution. The team first designed the particles to combine cadmium telluride, a semiconductor commonly used in solar cells, with cytochrome C, a protein used by plants to transport electrons in photosynthesis. With this combination, the semiconductor can turn a ray from the sun into an electron, and the cytochrome C can pull that electron away for use in chemical reactions that could clean up pollution or produce fuel, for instance. U-M‘s Sharon Glotzer, the Stuart W. Churchill Professor of Chemical Engineering, who led the simulations, compares the self-assembly to the way that the surfaces of living cells form, using attractive forces that are strong at small scales but weaken as the structure grows. Kotov’s group confirmed that the semiconductor particles and proteins naturally assemble into larger particles, roughly 100 nanometers (0.0001 millimeters) in diameter.

We merged biological and inorganic in a way that leverages the attributes of both to get something better than either alone,” Glotzer said. Powered by electrons from the cytochrome C, the enzyme could remove oxygen from nitrate molecules. Like the structures that accomplish photosynthesis in plants, the bionic particles took a beating from handling the energy. Nature constantly renews these working parts in plants, and through self-assembly, the particles may also be able to renew themselves.
Source: http://ns.umich.edu/

How To Harvest Electricity From Plants

Researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA) looked to nature for inspiration, and they are now developing a new technology that makes it possible to use plants to generate electricity. The sun provides the most abundant source of energy on the planet. However, only a tiny fraction of the solar radiation on Earth is converted into useful energy. Plants are the undisputed champions of solar power. After billions of years of evolution, most of them operate at nearly 100 percent quantum efficiency, meaning that for every photon of sunlight a plant captures, it produces an equal number of electrons. Converting even a fraction of this into electricity would improve upon the efficiency seen with solar panels, which generally operate at efficiency levels between 12 and 17 percent. During photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to split water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen, which produces electrons. These newly freed electrons go on to help create sugars that plants use much like food to support growth and reproduction.
We have developed a way to interrupt photosynthesis so that we can capture the electrons before the plant uses them to make these sugars,” said Ramajara Ramasamy, an assitant Professor in the UGA College of Engineering and member of UGA’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center.
Clean energy is the need of the century,” added Ramaraja Ramasamy, corresponding author of a paper describing the process in the Journal of Energy and Environmental Science. “This approach may one day transform our ability to generate cleaner power from sunlight using plant-based systems.”
Source: http://sustainability.uga.edu

Delicious fruits

Every year, U.S. supermarkets lose roughly 10 percent of their fruits and vegetables to spoilage, according to the Department of Agriculture. To help combat those losses, MIT chemistry professor Timothy Swager and his students have built a new nanotechnology-based sensor that could help grocers and food distributors better monitor their produce
The new sensors, described in the journal Angewandte Chemie , can detect tiny amounts of ethylene, a gas that promotes ripening in plants. Swager envisions the inexpensive sensors attached to cardboard boxes of produce and scanned with a handheld device that would reveal the contents’ ripeness. That way, grocers would know when to put certain items on sale to move them before they get too ripe.

“If we can create equipment that will help grocery stores manage things more precisely, and maybe lower their losses by 30 percent, that would be huge,” says Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry.
Detecting gases to monitor the food supply is a new area of interest for Swager, whose previous research has focused on sensors to detect explosives or chemical and biological warfare agents.

Source: http://web.mit.edu/press/2012/fruit-spoilage-sensor.html

Electric Power From Plants

Barry D. Bruce, professor of biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville,  and a team of researchers have developed a system that taps into photosynthetic processes to produce efficient and inexpensive energy.

“Because the system is so cheap and simple, my hope is that this system will develop with additional improvements to lead to a green, sustainable energy source,” said Bruce, noting that today’s fossil fuels were once, millions of years ago, energy-rich plant matter whose growth also was supported by the sun via the process of photosynthesisThis system is a preferred method of sustainable energy because it is clean and it is potentially very efficient, he added. As opposed to conventional photovoltaic solar power systems, we are using renewable biological materials rather than toxic chemicals to generate energy. Likewise, our system will require less time, land, water and input of fossil fuels to produce energy than most biofuels.

Bruce collaborated with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Switzerland to develop a process that improves the efficiency of generating electric power using molecular structures extracted from plants. Their findings are in the current issue of Nature: Scientific Reports.

Source: http://www.utk.edu/tntoday/2012/02/02/biosolar-breakthrough/