Tag Archives: xylem


It’s usually organ-on-a-chip or lab-on-a-chip or human-on-a-chip; this is my first tree-on-a-chip.

Engineers have designed a microfluidic device they call a “tree-on-a-chip,” which mimics the pumping mechanism of trees and other plants. Courtesy: MIT

From a March 20, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Trees and other plants, from towering redwoods to diminutive daisies, are nature’s hydraulic pumps. They are constantly pulling water up from their roots to the topmost leaves, and pumping sugars produced by their leaves back down to the roots. This constant stream of nutrients is shuttled through a system of tissues called xylem and phloem, which are packed together in woody, parallel conduits.

Now engineers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and their collaborators have designed a microfluidic device they call a “tree-on-a-chip,” which mimics the pumping mechanism of trees and plants. Like its natural counterparts, the chip operates passively, requiring no moving parts or external pumps. It is able to pump water and sugars through the chip at a steady flow rate for several days. The results are published this week in Nature Plants.

A March 20, 2017 MIT news release by Jennifer Chu, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

Anette “Peko” Hosoi, professor and associate department head for operations in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says the chip’s passive pumping may be leveraged as a simple hydraulic actuator for small robots. Engineers have found it difficult and expensive to make tiny, movable parts and pumps to power complex movements in small robots. The team’s new pumping mechanism may enable robots whose motions are propelled by inexpensive, sugar-powered pumps.

“The goal of this work is cheap complexity, like one sees in nature,” Hosoi says. “It’s easy to add another leaf or xylem channel in a tree. In small robotics, everything is hard, from manufacturing, to integration, to actuation. If we could make the building blocks that enable cheap complexity, that would be super exciting. I think these [microfluidic pumps] are a step in that direction.”

Hosoi’s co-authors on the paper are lead author Jean Comtet, a former graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering; Kaare Jensen of the Technical University of Denmark; and Robert Turgeon and Abraham Stroock, both of Cornell University.

A hydraulic lift

The group’s tree-inspired work grew out of a project on hydraulic robots powered by pumping fluids. Hosoi was interested in designing hydraulic robots at the small scale, that could perform actions similar to much bigger robots like Boston Dynamic’s Big Dog, a four-legged, Saint Bernard-sized robot that runs and jumps over rough terrain, powered by hydraulic actuators.

“For small systems, it’s often expensive to manufacture tiny moving pieces,” Hosoi says. “So we thought, ‘What if we could make a small-scale hydraulic system that could generate large pressures, with no moving parts?’ And then we asked, ‘Does anything do this in nature?’ It turns out that trees do.”

The general understanding among biologists has been that water, propelled by surface tension, travels up a tree’s channels of xylem, then diffuses through a semipermeable membrane and down into channels of phloem that contain sugar and other nutrients.

The more sugar there is in the phloem, the more water flows from xylem to phloem to balance out the sugar-to-water gradient, in a passive process known as osmosis. The resulting water flow flushes nutrients down to the roots. Trees and plants are thought to maintain this pumping process as more water is drawn up from their roots.

“This simple model of xylem and phloem has been well-known for decades,” Hosoi says. “From a qualitative point of view, this makes sense. But when you actually run the numbers, you realize this simple model does not allow for steady flow.”

In fact, engineers have previously attempted to design tree-inspired microfluidic pumps, fabricating parts that mimic xylem and phloem. But they found that these designs quickly stopped pumping within minutes.

It was Hosoi’s student Comtet who identified a third essential part to a tree’s pumping system: its leaves, which produce sugars through photosynthesis. Comtet’s model includes this additional source of sugars that diffuse from the leaves into a plant’s phloem, increasing the sugar-to-water gradient, which in turn maintains a constant osmotic pressure, circulating water and nutrients continuously throughout a tree.

Running on sugar

With Comtet’s hypothesis in mind, Hosoi and her team designed their tree-on-a-chip, a microfluidic pump that mimics a tree’s xylem, phloem, and most importantly, its sugar-producing leaves.

To make the chip, the researchers sandwiched together two plastic slides, through which they drilled small channels to represent xylem and phloem. They filled the xylem channel with water, and the phloem channel with water and sugar, then separated the two slides with a semipermeable material to mimic the membrane between xylem and phloem. They placed another membrane over the slide containing the phloem channel, and set a sugar cube on top to represent the additional source of sugar diffusing from a tree’s leaves into the phloem. They hooked the chip up to a tube, which fed water from a tank into the chip.

With this simple setup, the chip was able to passively pump water from the tank through the chip and out into a beaker, at a constant flow rate for several days, as opposed to previous designs that only pumped for several minutes.

“As soon as we put this sugar source in, we had it running for days at a steady state,” Hosoi says. “That’s exactly what we need. We want a device we can actually put in a robot.”

Hosoi envisions that the tree-on-a-chip pump may be built into a small robot to produce hydraulically powered motions, without requiring active pumps or parts.

“If you design your robot in a smart way, you could absolutely stick a sugar cube on it and let it go,” Hosoi says.

This research was supported, in part, by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency [DARPA].

This research’s funding connection to DARPA reminded me that MIT has an Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies.

Getting back to the tree-on-a-chip, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Passive phloem loading and long-distance transport in a synthetic tree-on-a-chip by Jean Comtet, Kaare H. Jensen, Robert Turgeon, Abraham D. Stroock & A. E. Hosoi. Nature Plants 3, Article number: 17032 (2017)  doi:10.1038/nplants.2017.32 Published online: 20 March 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

University of Maryland looks into transparent wood

Is transparent wood becoming the material du jour? Following on the heels of my April 1, 2016 post about transparent wood and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), there’s a May 6, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily about the material and a team at the University of Maryland,

Researchers at the University of Maryland have made a block of linden wood transparent, which they say will be useful in fancy building materials and in light-based electronics systems.

Materials scientist Liangbing Hu and his team at the University of Maryland, College Park, have removed the molecule in wood, lignin, that makes it rigid and dark in color. They left behind the colorless cellulose cell structures, filled them with epoxy, and came up with a version of the wood that is mostly see-thru.

I wonder if this is the type of material that might be used in structures like the proposed Center of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology at Tel Aviv University building (my May 9, 2016 posting about a building design that features no doors or windows)?

Regardless, there’s more about this latest transparent wood in a May 5, 2016 Tufts University news release, which originated the news item,

Remember “xylem” and “phloem” from grade-school science class? These structures pass water and nutrients up and down the tree. Hu and his colleagues see these as vertically aligned channels in the wood, a naturally-grown structure that can be used to pass light along, after the wood has been treated.

The resulting three-inch block of wood had both high transparency—the quality of being see-thru—and high haze—the quality of scattering light. This would be useful, said Hu, in making devices comfortable to look at. It would also help solar cells trap light; light could easily enter through the transparent function, but the high haze would keep the light bouncing around near where it would be absorbed by the solar panel.

They compared how the materials performed and how light worked its way through the wood when they sliced it two ways: one with the grain of the wood, so that the channels passed through the longest dimension of the block. And they also tried slicing it against the grain, so that the channels passed through the shortest dimension of the block.

The short channel wood proved slightly stronger and a little less brittle. But though the natural component making the wood strong had been removed, the addition of the epoxy made the wood four to six times tougher than the untreated version.

Then they investigated how the different directions of the wood affected the way the light passed through it. When laid down on top of a grid, both kinds of wood showed the lines clearly. When lifted just a touch above the grid, the long-channel wood still showed the grid, just a little bit more blurry. But the short channel wood, when lifted those same few millimeters, made the grid completely invisible.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Highly Anisotropic, Highly Transparent Wood Composites by Mingwei Zhu, Jianwei Song, Tian Li, Amy Gong, Yanbin Wang, Jiaqi Dai, Yonggang Yao, Wei Luo, Doug Henderson, and Liangbing Hu. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201600427 Article first published online: 4 MAY 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.