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RoboPlants of the Future: MIT Engineers and Scientists Develop Tree on a Chip

Update Date: Mar 23, 2017 12:34 PM EDT

A collaboration of engineers at the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has presented a more advanced version of a "tree-on-a-chip" that can mimic the pumping mechanism of plants.

A tree-on-a-chip is a microfluidic device that pumps water passively through the chip without the help of external pumps or moving parts, reported The version made by the team led by Professor Anette Hosoi was able to pump water at a steady rate for a period of several days. This is a far departure from earlier attempts that stopped pumping after a few minutes.

The key difference of this tree-on-a-chip device is the presence of sugar. The idea came from the study's co-author Jean Comtet, who recognized that the leaves produced sugar that powers a plant's transport of water.

The microfluidic chip is designed with channels that mimic the xylem and phloem that have semi-permeable membranes. The xylem channel was filled with water and the phloem with water and sugar. This system is the attached to a tube that draws up water through it, New Atlas reported. The water in the system moves at a steady rate because of the additional sugar that is placed on top of the phloem. The water keeps on flowing because of osmosis.

This success on tree-on-chip technology is a huge leap for cheap complexity and microfluidics. This will enable engineers to create miniature robots that have complex parts. A huge obstacle in robotics is the development of small parts that are very expensive. The goal they imagine is to put it in a small robot that can do hydraulic motions but does not require parts or active pumps.

This breakthrough microfluidic device was developed in coordination with and partly funded by the Defense Advance Research Project Agency (DARPA). This was first published in Nature Journal.

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