Plant Tattoo

Alex Whitebrook/ July 4, 2018/ News/ 0 comments

As an Iowa State University plant scientist, Patrick Schnable is working with low-cost, graphene-based sensors that can be attached to plants. The technology measures the time it takes for two kinds of corn plants to move water from their roots, to their lower leaves, and then to their upper leaves. The information gathered will provide new types of data to researchers and farmers.

“With a tool like this, we can begin to breed plants that are more efficient in using water,” he says. “That’s exciting. We couldn’t do this before. Once we can measure something, we can begin to understand it.”

Dubbed the plant sensor tattoo, the technology was developed by Liang Dong, an Iowa State associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, to make these water measurements possible. Seval Oren, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering, also helped develop the sensor-fabrication technology. Schnable, along with Halil Ceylan, a professor of civil, construction, and environmental engineering, assisted in testing applications of the sensors.


First discovered in 2004, graphene is made from honeycomb sheets of carbon just one atom thick. Its properties are exciting researchers because they are strong and stable, thin, almost completely transparent, extremely light, and an amazing conductor of electricity and heat.

“We’re trying to make sensors that are cheaper and still high performing,” Dong says.

To do that, the team developed a process for fabricating intricate graphene patterns on tape. The first step, Dong explains, is creating indented patterns on the surface of a polymer block, either with a molding process or with 3-D printing. Engineers apply a liquid graphene solution to the block, filling the indented patterns. They use tape to remove the excess graphene and then take another strip of tape to pull away the graphene patterns, which creates a sensor on the tape.

The process can produce precise patterns as small as 5 millionths of a meter wide. Making the patterns so small, Dong says, increases the sensitivity of the sensors.

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