Nanoparticles are added to the leaves of a Arabidopsis thaliana plant.

Nanoparticles are added to the leaves of a Arabidopsis thaliana plant.

Credit: Bryce Vickmark

The success of solar energy research is often measured by how closely artificial materials can mimic the photosynthetic capabilities of leaves. The common presumption in this and other fields is that nature represents the absolute measure of success, and that science would do well just to come close to nature's level of performance.

Researchers at MIT, however, are breaking from this performance metric. Rather than attempting to make synthetic technologies act more like natural ones, they are enhancing the capabilities of plants with human-made nanomaterials.

According to an MIT press release, Carbon P. Dubbs professor of chemical engineering Michael Strano and his research team increased the light-capture ability of plants by 30 percent after embedding carbon nanotubes in the chloroplast, the part of the cell responsible for photosynthesis. The nanomaterials, according to the release, operate as a "prosthetic photoabsorber" in this case, but increased efficiency is only one possible outcome. Strano and his team have also used carbon nanotubes to enable plants to detect particular gases such as nitric oxide. This research is part of a broader objective to transform plants into autonomous photonics devices—potentially with their own embedded electronics—capable of detecting the presence of harmful chemicals or explosives.

  • The researchers read the added sensors in an Arabidopsis thaliana plant with a near-infrared microscope.

    Credit: Bryce Vickmark

    The researchers read the added sensors in an Arabidopsis thaliana plant with a near-infrared microscope.
"Right now, almost no one is working in this emerging field," said plant biologist Juan Pablo Giraldo, also the research paper's lead author, in the release. "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."

The creation of bionic plants raises fascinating questions about future possibilities in the built environment. Could scientists modify plants to support some of the functions—such as shelter, energy production, storm water conveyance, or thermal protection—currently carried out by nonliving materials in architecture? Will our building products increasingly be made from technologically enhanced living materials? Will the blurring between technology and biology eventually lead to the marriage of architecture and landscape?

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.