Micro Fuel-Cells May Turn Insects Into Spies
January 10, 2012

Micro Fuel-Cells May Turn Insects Into Spies

Is this the stuff that sci-fi movies are made of? Researchers have been working to outfit insects with tiny electronic sensors in hopes of creating insects that can be used in applications ranging from search-and-rescue to espionage, reports John Roach for MSNBC.

Researchers recently published findings in the Journal of the American Chemistry Society which suggests that they are close to solving the problem of finding a reliable power source for the bug-borne sensors.

Batteries alone installed on insects' backs fail to deliver proper long-term power to support reconnaissance and first-response missions, Huffington Post reports. So researchers at the University of Michigan are developing techniques to harness the movement, body heat and the insects´ very body chemistry.

The technique, basically a fuel cell, works by introducing a series of enzymes to break down complex molecules that the cockroach produces when it eats, and oxidizing the resulting sugars to release electrons; these are then run through the fuel cell to create electricity.

This means that power can be produced without the insect needing to be in motion, and researchers are optimistic about the applications for such a technology.

Daniel Scherson, chemistry professor at Case Western Reserve and senior author of the paper, told PhysOrg, “It´s possible the system could be used intermittently... An insect equipped with a sensor could measure the amount of noxious gas in a room, broadcast the finding, shut down and recharge for an hour, then take a new measurement and broadcast again.”

Scherson´s fuel cell utilizes a cascade of reactions by enzymes to convert energy stored as sugars into electricity. The first enzyme breaks down the sugar trehalose, which cockroaches constantly produce from their food, into two simpler sugars.

A second enzyme oxidizes the simple sugars, releasing electrons that “can then be funneled together to electrodes where they are captured and delivered to oxygen,” Scherson explained.

First testing the system on trehalose solutions, the researchers inserted prototype electrodes into the belly of a female cockroach, then watched as the biofuel cell produced a trickle of electricity – 0.2 volts.

The research team was very excited at the prospects of using existing technology with the insects, “It is virtually impossible to start from scratch and make something that works like an insect,” Scherson explained to MSN. “Using an insect is likely to prove far easier. For that, you need electrical energy to power sensors or to excite the neurons to make the insect do as you want, by generating enough power out of the insect itself.”


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