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Bugging the Bugs

Researchers are trying to harvest energy from insects to be used to power things like tiny cameras or sensors and communications devices. They could be sent where people dare not tread – tiny places perhaps or into nasty environments.
By Susanne Retka Schill | March 19, 2012

No, little critters haven’t been turned into racers on high-octane ethanol. It’s like something out of science fiction. Researchers are trying to harvest energy from insects to be used to power things like tiny cameras or sensors and communications devices. They could be sent where people dare not tread – tiny places perhaps or into nasty environments with toxic gases or such. Cockroaches, moths, even snails, are being worked on to turn them into cyborgs.

Wikipedia says cyborg is short for “cybernetic organism.” Most often, cyborg is applied to an organism with enhanced abilities due to technologies. Fictional cyborgs include The Borg in “Star Trek” and the Cybermen in “Doctor Who,” among others, according to the entry.

This is no fiction, though. Several teams of researchers are trying different approaches. On March 8, a multidisciplinary team of researchers at Clarkson University, working with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, had a paper published on implanting a biofuel cell in a living snail.  The snail’s glucose production is consumed by biocatalytic electrodes to produce electricity. The researchers envision the snail with the implanted biofuel cell will be able to operate in a natural environment , producing sustainable electrical micropower for activating various bioelectronic devices.

While these guys may be the first to implant a biofuel cell creating electricity, they are among  several teams working on the idea. A group at Case Western Reserve University have created a power supply in cockroaches, tapping into the insect’s enzyme production and using implanted electrodes to attract electrons created in an oxidation reaction, thus creating a current flow. The work continues to miniaturize the fuel cell so the insect can run and fly normally. They are working with other researchers to develop a signal transmitter that runs on microwatts.

At Cornell University, researchers have implanted electronic circuit probes into tobacco hornworms as pupae. When the moths emerge, their muscles can be controlled with implanted electronics. And at the University of Michigan, researchers are working on harvesting  energy from wing movements or body heat.

The Department of Defense is funding such research. Ideas being explored include using small animals to detect explosives and surveillance. In battle conditions, this could be handy, but just consider the potential for the invasion of privacy, should the idea catch on in the private sector. Perhaps the proliferation of bugged bugs might make living in the north far more attractive -- I can see the N.D. economic development folks promoting it now.  Insects, after all, like winter even less than people.

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