Fuel Cell Robot Runs off Dead Flies

OK, here’s perhaps the most far-out use of a fuel cell, this editor has ever seen. A team of scientists and engineers in the Intelligent Autonomous Systems (IAS) lab at the University of the West of England have built a fuel cell-powered robot, which is able to power itself on a diet of dead flies or apples.

Bristol, England – September 13, 2004 [SolarAccess.com] Building on the success of their previous work where they demonstrated a robot capable of moving using refined sugar as a food, the team have now built a robot which can move and transmit sensor data over a radio link (over 30m inside the lab) powered solely by unrefined food including dead flies and apples. The robot is known as Ecobot II which employs a Microbial Fuel Cell as its only power source. In the Microbial Fuel Cell microbes are used to extract electricity directly from food – in this case flies or apple. The 1kg robot moves at a stunning speed of 30cm/hr – so no need to dodge out of the way. Electricity is extracted from the raw substrate (food) and is stored until there is sufficient for some action to be taken. The ‘proof-of-concept’ robot has sufficient energy to carry out its tasks every few minutes. To demonstrate the ability to extract energy from raw foods the team chose the following token tasks to be accomplished using only the energy contained in its food: (1) moving towards a light (phototaxis), (2) temperature monitoring and (3) radio transmission of data via on on-board wireless system to a base station. Albeit slow – the robot successfully completed its mission. Of course, in principle, the robot could be made to sense many other things such as toxins or pollutants. “In the future we will require autonomous robots to carry out work which we don’t want to do which is boring, difficult or repetitive, in locations we don’t want to be in (for example too cold, too hazardous or too dirty) at a time we can’t be there,” said Professor Chris Melhuish. “This means that some robots will need to be able to extract their energy from the environment, that is be autonomous. This work takes us a few (small) steps in that direction” “More importantly, the fact that the flies were already dead (of natural causes, they say) and the apples were rotten means that these robots could be developed to clean food waste from the environment,” Melhuish said. “Furthermore, since they don’t use fossil fuels and do useful tasks we view them as eco-friendly.” Other applications might include attraction of specific types of insects with pheromones and thus remote robots could be designed to monitor insect densities and give early warning of infestation. The team consists of: Professor John Greenman, Professor Chris Melhuish, PhD student Loannis Leropoulos and senior technical specialist Ian Horsfield.
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