Bristol Robotics Laboratory Creates Microbial Fuel Cell Robots that Feed Themselves

We live in a world of technology. Our kids grow up with computers as one of their best friends. They even mature together: The kids who grow up expect their systems to grow with them, which means that old computers are constantly replaced with new ones. Technology is evolving faster than we ever thought possible and I doubt that anyone will be surprised when machines become almost independent of their creators.

The biggest problem with self sustaining machinery is fuel. Just like we consume countless varieties of foods to keep us going throughout the day, a machine’s hunger pangs are generally alleviated with gas, electricity and batteries. The ideal machine, however, should be able to ‘survive’ on naturally occurring foods that are sustainable and abundant.

Science projects today, voracious
self-serving servants tomorrow.
(Image: Bristol Robotics Lab.)

This is where the Ecobot comes into play. Engineers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory were motivated by the idea of developing autonomous robots able to collect energy from their surroundings, foraging for items like rotten fruit (similar to any other animal), while eliminating unnecessary waste from their systems after having consumed the ‘meal’. The design is nothing short of genius (if not eerie) and revolves around the robot’s Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC).

Bristol explains the MFC design for their Ecobot model: “the Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) technology is employed to extract electrical energy from refined foods such as sugar and unrefined foods such as insects and fruit. This is achieved by extracting electrons from the microbial metabolic processes. To be truly autonomous, robots will be required to incorporate in their behavioral repertoire actions that involve searching, collecting and digesting food. The robot will be designed to remain inactive until sufficient energy has been generated to complete its next task.”

The first Ecobot (aptly titled Ecobot I) was developed in 2002. E.coli bacteria were incorporated into the design and they powered the robot after ingesting sugar. The first ecobot was a small, simple robot that used the microbial energy charging its fuel cells to do nothing more than roll towards areas with more light. The light-loving Ecobot is described as a “960g robot, powered by microbial fuel cells (MFCs)…This robot does not use any other form of power source such as batteries or solar panels. It is 22cm in diameter and 7.5cm high.”

In 2004, an alternative robot was developed that used sludge microbes instead of E.coli bacteria. These sludge microbes seem more capable; digesting more complicated foods like dead insects and waste (like rotting produce) to fuel the MFC. Also, this technology seems much more beneficial to the environment.

Bristol has also been working on an underwater version of an ecobot that uses mechanical ‘gills’ to strain microorganisms into its fuel cell.

It is important to note that the robots developed by the laboratory are the first step towards the creation of incredible machines that are comparable to metal animals-foraging for foods that naturally surround them when fuel cells run low. Bristol’s findings are essential for the development of these complicated machines. Right now all we see is potential, but it would be incredible to have robots slurping up garbage strewn through parks, simultaneously cleaning up our messes and energizing themselves in the process. But, that is a long way off.

One Response to “Bristol Robotics Laboratory Creates Microbial Fuel Cell Robots that Feed Themselves”
  1. Dave says:

    Fascinating. My first thought was what is to become of those now employed humans who do this?


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