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Space farming takes a big leap forward with new stretchy sensors

The dream of growing food in space is edging closer to reality. Space farming has always faced multiple challenges. These include cramped quarters, unusual gravity, and the vast distances that separate astronauts from traditional resources.

That’s where the ingenuity of scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign comes into play. They’ve developed a a stretchy sensor for plants that could transform how we think about growing food beyond our planet.

Developing a space farming tool

“This work is motivated by the needs of astronauts to grow vegetables sustainably while they are on long missions,” explained chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Ying Diao, who leads the research team.

Developing a sensor that could withstand both the flexibility required for plant growth and the harsh space environment was challenging. In fact, it took this team three years of dedicated work to get it right.

“Honestly, we began this work thinking that this task would only take a few months to perfect,” admits graduate student Siqing Wang, a key member of the team. This is because traditional sensor materials weren’t designed with leaves and shoots in mind.

They struggled to stretch as plants grew and were often too rigid. The sensors potentially damaged the very crops they were meant to monitor.

Hence, the team had to completely reimagine their approach to space farming, reformulating components and even developing new printing techniques to get the flexibility and durability they needed.


The result of their experiments is the SPEARS2 – the Stretchable-Polymer-Electronics-based Autonomous Remote Strain Sensor. This impressive bit of wearable plant tech is resilient enough to handle the humidity and rapid growth cycles of crops in a space farming environment.

Made from stretchy polymers, the sensor can cling to plants as they grow, even stretching over 400%. Moreover, SPEARS2 can wirelessly transmit growth data back to scientists, all without needing someone to constantly check it.

“It is an exciting technical advance in our ability to perform precise, noninvasive measurements of plant growth in real-time,” says plant biology professor Andrew Leakey.

Beyond space farming

This research opens up exciting possibilities. While the study focuses on vertical crops like corn, the team aims to expand the technology to monitor a wider variety of plants.

Moreover, the innovation has the potential to sprout benefits right here on Earth. These stretchy sensors could have major applications in precision agriculture.

Interestingly, farmers could use them to track delicate crops. They might detect early signs of disease, stress due to drought, or even help ensure optimal growing conditions for maximum yield.

Study significance

This work highlights the power of collaboration, bringing together experts in bioengineering, crop sciences, material science, and more. With support from NASA and the Beckman Institute, this study represents a major step towards sustainable farming, both in space and on Earth.

Professor Diao sums it up perfectly: “I think the wearable electronics research community has ignored plants for too long. We know that they are experiencing a lot of stress during climate adaptation, and I think soft electronics can play a bigger role in advancing our understanding so we can ensure that plants are healthy, happy and sustainable in the future — whether that is in space, on other planets or right here on Earth.”

The future may hold a world where high-tech sensors ensure food security for explorers and Earth-dwellers alike.

The study is published in the journal Device.


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