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MRI imaging shows how plants can inspire new engineering materials

01 July 2015

3D imaging of plant branching structures shows how their internal tissues respond under stress, providing insights into the design of new engineering materials.

A branch of Dracaena marginata (photo: Linnea Hesse)

Researchers from the Plant Biomechanics Group of the University of Freiburg have developed a new method to visualise the junction between branches and stems in plants (plant ramifications). The method uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study how vascular tissue within the ramifications deforms under stress and strain. These ramifications can then be used as concept generators for branched, fibre-reinforced, lightweight materials in bicycles, cars aircraft and architectural structures.

"We wanted to assess the load-bearing capacity of the vascular tissues," says Linnea Hesse, one of the researchers involved in the study. "Now, for the first time, we can visualise load-induced deformations non-invasively within a living plant."

By comparing 3D-images of the arrangement of vascular bundles in unloaded and mechanically loaded ramifications, the researchers hope to understand the importance of bundles and other tissues in biomechanics, so that this method can be used to optimise branched, fibre-reinforced, lightweight components.

MRI scans of plant ramifications (images: Linnea Hesse)

"The focus is on optimising technical ramifications and thus product development in car, aircraft, windmill and sport device construction, as these profit from reduced weight and high load-bearing capacity", says Hesse.

Other visualisation methods, which employ histological techniques or µCT, require extensive preparation and image-post-processing, as well as being invasive. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) helps to overcome these issues by allowing the workers to differentiate various plant tissues without damaging the plant (non-invasive) prior to or during image acquisition.

Further work is needed before the method can be fully implemented, but it is hoped that these methods will be useful not only for biomimicry or plant biomechanics but also for studying general plant biology.

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