Thermometer 100 times as sensitive

ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)
ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)

Scientists from ETH Zurich have developed a thermometer that is at least 100 times more sensitive than previous temperature sensors. It consists of a bio-synthetic hybrid material of tobacco cells and nanotubes.

Humans have been inspired by nature since the beginning of time. We mimic nature to develop new technologies, with examples ranging from machinery to pharmaceuticals to new materials. Planes are modelled on birds and many drugs have their origins in plants. Researchers at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering have taken it a step further: in order to develop an extremely sensitive temperature sensor they took a close look at temperature-sensitive plants. However, they did not mimic the properties of the plants; instead, they developed a hybrid material that contains, in addition to synthetic components, the plant cells themselves. “We let nature do the job for us,” explains Chiara Daraio, Professor of Mechanics and Materials.

The scientists were able to develop by far the most sensitive temperature sensor: an electronic module that changes its conductivity as a function of temperature. “No other sensor can respond to such small temperature fluctuations with such large changes in conductivity. Our sensor reacts with a responsivity at least 100 times higher compared to the best existing sensors,” says Raffaele Di Giacomo, a post-doc in Daraio’s group.

Water is replaced by nanotubes

It has been known for decades that plants have the extraordinary ability to register extremely fine temperature differences and respond to them through changes in the conductivity of their cells. In doing so, plants are better than any man-made sensor so far.

Di Giacomo experimented with tobacco cells in a cell culture. “We asked ourselves how we might transfer these cells into a lifeless, dry material in such a way that their temperature-sensitive properties are preserved,” he recounts. The scientists achieved their objective by growing the cells in a medium containing tiny tubes of carbon. These electrically conductive carbon nanotubes formed a network between the tobacco cells and were also able to penetrate the cell walls. When Di Giacomo dried the nanotube-cultivated cells, he discovered a woody, firm material that he calls ‘cyberwood’. In contrast to wood, this material is electrically conductive thanks to the nanotubes, and interestingly the conductivity is temperature-dependent and extremely sensitive, just like in living tobacco cells.

Touchless touchscreen and heat-sensitive cameras

As demonstrated by experiments, the cyberwood sensor can identify warm bodies even at distance; for example, a hand approaching the sensor from a distance of a few dozen centimetres. The sensor’s conductivity depends directly on the hand’s distance from the sensor.

Read more: From tobacco to cyberwood

 

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