North Carolina State University researchers led by Zheng li have developed a patch that the plants they can "wear" to continuously monitor for diseases or other discomforts, such as crop damage or extreme heat.
A green health sensor
We have created a wearable sensor that monitors plant stress and disease in a non-invasive way by measuring the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by plantsQingshan Wei, co-author of the research. Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State University.
Current testing methods for stress or crop disease involve taking plant tissue samples and conducting laboratory analyzes.
However, this only gives growers one measurement: the time interval between picking and the test results makes it difficult to read.
Different crops, different frequencies
Crops emit different combinations of VOCs under different circumstances. By targeting VOCs relevant to specific plant diseases or stresses, sensors can alert users to specific problems.
“Our technology continuously monitors VOC emissions from the plant, without damaging the plant,” says Wei. “The prototype we demonstrated stores this tracking data, but future versions will transmit the data wirelessly. What we have developed allows growers to identify problems in the field - they shouldn't have to wait to get test results from a lab. "
How are "green" patches made?
The rectangular patches are 30mm long and consist of a flexible material containing graphene-based sensors and flexible silver nanowires. The sensors are coated with various chemical ligands that respond to the presence of specific VOCs for different crops.
This allows the system to detect and measure VOCs in the gases emitted by the plant's leaves.
The researchers tested a prototype of the device on tomato plants. The prototype was set up to monitor two types of stress: physical damage to the plant and infection with P. infestans, the pathogen that causes downy mildew in tomatoes.
The system detected changes associated with the physical damage of the crops within one to three hours, depending on how close the damage was to the patch site.
Things improved and to be improved
Detecting the presence of P. infestans took longer. The technology didn't detect changes in VOC emissions until three to four days after the researchers inoculated the tomato plants.
"This is not much faster than the onset of visual symptoms of downy mildew," Wei says. “However, the crop monitoring system ensures that growers don't have to rely on detecting the slightest visual symptoms. Continuous monitoring would allow growers to identify plant diseases as quickly as possible, helping them to limit the spread of the disease. "
The green patch prototypes are already able to detect 13 different VOCs of as many crops with high precision.
“Waxed” crops, cured crops
It is important to note that the materials have a rather low cost. If production increases, this technology will become profitable. A practical solution to such a problem requires very low costs.
The next step for “crop saver” patches? Researchers are currently working on the next generation that can monitor temperature, humidity and other environmental variables, in addition to VOCs. And as mentioned, future versions will be solar powered and capable of wireless data transfer.