A team of MIT scientists developed a chip-based passive pumping device. They were able to do so as they drew inspiration from nature. Their new technology was even dubbed “tree-on-a-chip”.
Research results on the matter were released on March 20th. They were published in the Nature Plants journal. The paper is titled “Passive phloem loading and long-distance transport in a synthetic tree-on-a-chip”.
A Passive Pumping Device Inspired By Nature’s Hydraulic Pumps
Trees, as well as other plants, are known to have a natural hydraulic pumping system. This allows them to efficiently and continuously pull up water from the ground through their roots. From there, this is spread throughout the plant, especially to the leaves. These latter produce sugars which, in their turn, take a trip back down.
This natural cycle inspired an MIT team to create their own passive pumping device. According to the researchers, this could have many technological applications. For example, it could help power robots, amongst others.
The team calls its creation a “tree-on-a-chip”. Just like the natural system, their device has no pumps or moving parts. Nonetheless, just like a plant, it is reportedly able to passively but still continuously circulate water and sugars. These are moved through the device’s chip base. According to the team, their passive pumping device can keep this steady rhythm for days.
A natural pumping system is based on phloem and xylem. These are tissue channels in the plant which balance each other. They help maintain an equal sugar to water ratio. For example, in case there is more sugar in the phloem, the xylem pulls in more water. This will then flush down the excessive sugars to the roots.
The team’s passive pumping chip works in a similar manner. It is based on two plastic slides with holes drilled into them. These latter act as channels or the phloem and xylem. Then, they introduced a semipermeable material between them. As this replicates a tree membrane, the artificial xylem was filled with water. Its corresponding phloem received both water and sugar.
Additional elements were also added. For example, a tank of water was connected so as to maintain a steady flow. Also, the team added a second membrane on its phloem to replicate the extra sugar.
What Is The Utility Of Such A Passive Pumping Device?
The researchers pointed out the following facts. It is usually difficult to build pumps and parts for tiny robots. Also, it may be quite expensive as well. Nonetheless, such parts are needed in order to move the robots. As such, this new tree-on-a-chip could come to act as a mini hydraulic actuator. One that could power small robotics via sugar power.
According to the team, small robotics are quite difficult, from all points of view. Or more exactly, from their production to actuation to integration. As such, they are looking to do the following:
“If we could make the building blocks that enable cheap complexity, that would be super exciting. I think that these microfluidic pumps are a step in that direction.”
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