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Snails and Cockroaches Become Living Batteries

A version of this story originally appeared on NoCamels – Israeli Innovation News  By: NoCamels Team

Have your alarm clock batteries run out of power? No worries, just plug your snail in.

Yes, you heard us right. Snails have been turned into cyborg power generators that can generate power for months.

Researchers, led by Professor Evgeny Katz from Clarkson University, implanted tiny biofuel cells into snails that can generate electrical power from glucose and oxygen in the animal's blood.

This pioneering experiment was led by researchers from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., in cooperation with Israeli colleagues at Ben-Gurion University. The results of the study are described in detail in the latest online edition of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

This is the first time that researchers have been able to generate electricity from a living creature's body that can last several months.

"The biofuel cells are expected to operate in small creatures, such as snails, worms and insects - providing sustainable electrical power for various sensors and wireless transmitters," Prof. Katz says.

Does this mean that cyborg snails may one day become an alternative energy source? Actually, the electrodes that fit into the bodies of snails don't produce enough electricity to power larger devices. Nevertheless, they might generate enough power for microcircuits and tiny sensors that could record important data about the environment that a snail crawls through.

Snail’s food recharges the battery

Katz and his colleagues implanted the snail with electrodes made of thin sheets of carbon nanotubes called Buckypaper, which can conduct electricity. Those electrodes, coupled with certain enzymes, create electricity by using glucose sugar and oxygen circulating in the snail's body.

Such a setup still allows the snails to wander around freely, while "recharge" their batteries by building up glucose through food.

"Our snail was living for a few months with the implanted electrodes, eating, drinking and moving," Katz told InnovationNewsDaily. "The snail was immobilized only for a few minutes to make the electrical measurements and then it was released again to move."

The amount of electricity created was still far below that of just one AAA battery, but the researchers hope to boost the flow of electricity in new experiments. They have also begun testing different substances in the bodies of such small creatures that could power the battery.

Other researchers from Case Western Reserve University have recently created cyborg cockroaches using the same concept. Cockroaches are certainly quicker, and their faster metabolism also generates more electricity than a snail's does. But the advantage of snails is that they provide a more stable output for months rather than weeks.

Backed by the U.S. Department of Defense

The research has attracted funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, which is interested in the potential of cyborg organisms of all sorts to provide reconnaissance and environmental monitoring for military purposes. The snails could basically serve as living sensors or detectors for the U.S. military and Homeland Security.

As a next step, Katz's team plans to hook the living batteries up to microelectronic devices attached to the outside of the creatures' shells or exoskeletons. A cyborg snail or insect could carry video cameras or gas sensors to collect information before beaming it to the home base through wireless transmitters.

According to Prof. Katz, implanted biofuel cells that run on glucose might also someday power new medical devices inside the human body. In fact, researchers at the Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, are building biocompatible fuel cells that may one day be implanted in humans so that our own blood supply can power medical devices such as pacemakers.

Photo by mpeterke

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