Whiskeroscope: rodent whisker inspired sensor for use in analysis of plant tissue structure

Jan Lyczakowski (Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge), Abhimanyu Singh (Independent, previously Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge). Christie Nel (Independent, previously Stellenbosch University)

Understanding mechanical properties of plant biomass is crucial for multiple industries, including building construction and production of lignocellulosic biofuels. Current methods to analyse mechanical properties of biomass are slow and provide little accuracy. The aim of the project was to develop a prototype of a novel type of mechanical sensor which addresses challenges outlined above and required a range of skills. 

It has been great working with an engineer and an informatician to design, construct and optimise a device relevant to my research. The OpenPlant Fund has allowed me and my collaborators to engage in an exciting, interdisciplinary project.. In addition to the financial support, the OpenPlant has provided much guidance on how to structure and develop our project.
— Jan Lyczakowski, University of Cambridge

The device is inspired by rodent whiskers and relies on two inputs, obtained using thin steel rod, to quantify stiffness. During each measurement the primary, macromotion, dataset is obtained by analysing the extent to which the whisker bend during the contact with the material. Additional information is obtained by overlaying the macromotion data with the impact of the whisker contacting the material on its micro-oscillation. The instrument successfully discriminated between materials with unlike mechanical properties (steel and foam) and differently aged stem samples from willow.

Whiskeroscope was also applied to study Arabidopsis thaliana stems with altered composition of secondary cell walls. The project and the background information on plant cell walls were demonstrated to the wider public.

Thanks to participating in the OpenPlant Fund we were also given an opportunity to showcase our project during the Cambridge Science Festival. It was really great to demonstrate our prototype to the public and discuss how by analysing and modifying plant biomass we can generate sustainable and renewable biomaterials
— Jan Lyczakowski, University of Cambridge