Cyborg Snails May Be The Future Of Military Recon

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Organisms are really quite spectacular engines. Not only do they use their own power to keep themselves fueled, but they also fuel themselves with stuff that is literally growing out of the ground and falling out of the sky. That’s way more than you could ask of the engine in a car, or a turbine in a power plant. Or is it?  Evgeny Katz and a team at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York are trying to change that, not by making engines as intelligent as organisms, but by making organisms into engines. Specifically snails. Electricity-generating cyborg snails. Saturday morning cartoon anyone?

The concept is pretty simple. All you need to do is implant tiny biofuel cells in an organism that can use the constant supply of oxygen and glucose to create electricity. Basically, you’re just retrofitting an organism with a tiny electronic parasite that you can use to satisfy your own whims. The organisms, for the most part, are none the worse for the wear. The only catch is that whatever your own whims are, they better not require too much electricity, or you’re out of luck.

In the case of Katz’s snails here, the biofuel cells in use can generate around 7.45 microwatts, but their efficiency drops off to about 80% after 45 minutes or so. If you want sustainable, long term generation, you get an even lower rate. Needless to say, that’s not a lot of electricity, but there are ways to make use of it, specifically capacitors. If you were to store that energy over a long enough time, you might be able to charge up a burst that’s strong enough to power something worth powering, like a transmitter or something.

The main application here is probably for military recon. The idea of being able to send out tons of autonomous scouts, all of which seem to be relatively ordinary insects, could prove useful. The general lack of control over the little dudes’ whereabouts could be largely trumped by the ability to have tons of the guys without having to worry about supply lines or maintenance. Granted, the technologies are still in development, so there’s really no telling what kind of potential they may ultimately have (or lack).

As for now, the focus is on optimizing the power output as best as possible and exploring what different kind of animal options there are. After having worked with snails, Katz is going to move on to experimenting with the possibility of cyborg lobsters. Similar experiments have also been performed with beetles that generate power with their wings, and use it to power mind-control chips implanted in their brains. Obviously human cyborgs isn’t necessarily where this is all headed, but in a way, it’s kind of hard to eliminate that as a possibility. Granted, that arena of applications would raise a whole bunch of new practical problems and ethical quandaries, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen someday. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to being able to charge my own phone, even if I had to sacrifice a little bit of my humanity to do it. Really, what’s your humanity good for anyways?

(via Scientific American, image credit Luis nunes alberto)

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