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Technology currently under development may one day enable bacterial motion to provide power to electrical devices. Tiny robots powered by bacteria make their way to a programmed spot by responding to changes in an electric field (image via Drexel University)

 

What if renewable energy meant more than wind turbines and solar panels?

What if electrical power could be produced through the motion of bacteria?

 

Research has been underway for a few years to see if such a thing is possible, and it’s looking like prototypes may emerge within a few years. Most recently, researchers at Oxford University have demonstrated that dense fluid suspensions of matter, like microbes, can manipulate rotors to produce steady motion. Different kinds of dense suspensions in fluids can generate certain kinds of motion, which ultimately results in the spinning an embedded rotor.

 

What are dense suspensions, anyway? They’re characterized by lots of moving agents, whether that’s a cell or a protein, in some kind of matrix. Let’s say a collection of bacterial cells in a gel. Each bacterium is moving independently, and the sum of all total random movement produces collective action.

 

This is a universally observed phenomenon. Large flocks of birds demonstrate this kind of motion. Each bird moves on its own, consuming energy and producing movement. If the motion produced by all the birds could be used to turn a wind turbine, that would be harnessing collective action.

 

To harness collective action at a much smaller scale, rotors were placed on a grid in a dense suspension. The rotors would spin in opposite directions to adjacent rotors, producing regular motion. This could prove to be very valuable because no power input is needed-it’s essentially getting free energy.

 

Researchers at Drexel also recently figured out a way to direct tiny robots. Attached to bacteria with tails, or flagella, the motion of the spinning tails propels the microbot through a fluid. The microbot is programmed to react to changes in the electrical current to navigate.

This could be used for drug delivery in the future, which would develop an entire field of highly specific drugs with very exact receptors in the human body.

 

Whether directing tiny robots or harnessing tiny wind energy, energy from microorganisms may well prove to be a valuable contribution in the future.

 

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