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The Breakfast of Champions for Robots: Dead Flies and Mice

It might not look like the future of independent robotics. But EcoBot is doing its bit. It’s powered by a microbial fuel cell or MFC – the device that could set the robot free.

An MFC is like a battery of microbes. As long as you feed it – in this case with pig’s urine – it’ll keep generating electricity.

Ioannis Ieropoulos of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory says you can even feed them their own waste.

“They basically break down any kind of organic compound, they will break it down and they will produce electricity out of that.”

Scientists are keen to perfect an autonomous robot, one that can operate on its own and find its own fuel. But devices that consume animal life are not without their critics, as the designers of this fly-catching clock discovered.

Designer James Auger’s domestic appliances are criticized for crossing an apparently fine line between pest control for pest control’s sake and pest control for other purposes.

“If you have a mouse in the home or if you’ve got a fly problem its no problem at all to get a UV fly killer or fly paper or to get their own control people to lay poison so long as they put the animal you have just killed in the bin afterwards. If you use that animal or that creature to generate electricity then people find it very problematic.”

Powering robots or clocks is all very well. But the ability to break down any organic compound could see MFCs employed in much more mundane tasks first, like water treatment, according to Ieropoulos.

“If we play it right and if we have these microbial fuel cells engineered appropriately and configured to fit in within an existing waste water treatment plant these microbial fuel cells can be cleaning waste water and generating electricity at the same time.”

The glamorous future of the autonomous robot may yet depend on a humble but powerful little microbe.

Bottom line: The tiny microbe could be the future of sustainable energy according to researchers in the UK. The scientists are developing autonomous robots that can generate their own power, and microbial fuel cells that can turn any organic material into electricity, could be the answer.