Scientists have discovered microneedle sensors that can track plants’ health

Published September 7, 2021, 10:30 AM

by Vina Medenilla

Have you ever thought of keeping tabs on your plants’ health the same way we monitor the human heartbeat? There is a newly discovered microsensor that serves a similar purpose. 

It is a needle-like sensor that can be inserted into leaves and stems to closely monitor plant health and productivity without damaging them. Technologies in precision agriculture such as this one promote new methods that can provide plants with optimal health and growing conditions. 

Photo courtesy of MIT from New Atlas website.

Maximizing technology to determine the plants’ needs could allow growers to increase yield and improve the efficiency of resources such as fertilizer, water, and land. 

These microneedles are a technology from the medical sector, which is now also being employed in agriculture. 

The needle-sensors have the ability to reveal the plants’ health through bioimpedance or by how they react to the flow of small electric current. Plant reactions may vary based on the availability of water, nutrients, light, and other factors. 

The previous concern of this innovation has to do with how to make them narrow enough so they can be inserted into plants without causing lasting injuries. On top of this, the microsensors are made of polymers, and production of these is costly, making them ineffective for large commercial scales. 

In a new study, experts found answers to these problems. They developed moulds as a tool for the silicon to expand, allowing needles to gradually come out when the moulds are submerged in a liquid called chloroform. 

This can cut down on production costs because the silicon moulds can be used up to 20 times. Plus, it allows needles to be thinner and safer for plant use. 

When researchers examined the microneedles in a real-world setting, results showed that extremely thin needles had no long-term damage to the plants. It only took four days for the puncture marks to heal. 

Abdullah Bukhamsin, the lead author of the study, said that the potential of these microneedles are currently being explored, including its capacity to track nitrogen intake from fertilizer.

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