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Tech by VICE

Cyborg Cockroaches Can Now Make Their Own Power

We're getting closer to using crawling networks of cockroaches for all our sensor needs.

by Victoria Turk
Feb 4 2014, 1:00pm
We could turn these regular cockroaches into self-powered cyborg sensor networks. Photo via Flickr/Tjflex2

While everyone else has been drooling over the potential battery tech in a possibly-never-to-materialize Apple watch, researchers in Japan were showcasing their own small-scale energy innovation: a cockroach-powered fuel cell.

Japanese magazine Nikkei Electronics’ Tech-On site reported that scientists from Osaka University and the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology presented their “biofuel cell” at the IEEE MEMS conference last week. 

And if the concept of cockroach power wasn’t sci-fi enough in itself, the technique is expected to be used in developing a wireless sensor network of cyborg insects. Dreams of large, living sensor networks have been crawling with cockroaches for a while. Because they’re small, hardy, and plentiful, various researchers have considered ways to mount sensors on their backs and send them into environments that are otherwise difficult or dangerous to reach—they could wriggle through earthquake rubble, for instance, and map the scene for rescue workers.

We already know how to direct the insects by hacking their antennae—RoboRoach kits let any kid with a smartphone have a go at making a remote-controlled roach cyborg. Turning them into data collectors is just a matter of adding an appropriate sensor backpack; we recently saw insect-mounted sensors on the likes of honeybees who can map their own movements.

But powering cockroach-mounted sensors for any time is more of a problem, and that’s where this fuel cell comes in. Where batteries are heavy and need recharging, the cell makes its own fuel from the cockroach’s own body fluid. The insect’s blood lymph contains trehalose, a type of sugar that is taken up into a miniature “tank” inserted in the cockroach via a permeable membrane. You just have to make sure the roach is well-fed so supplies are maintained.

Tech-On explained that the trehalose is broken down by enzymes to produce glucose, which generates power via a process of oxidation. The researchers 3D-printed a prototype fuel cell and tried it out on a roach, where it generated 50.2 micro watts of power. 

That could then power a sensor and lead to a cockroach cyborg with a longer battery life. As well as search and rescue missions, the Daily Mail reported that a swarm of the smart insects could be used to measure chemicals and pollutants, or even radiation. Basically, anywhere humans don’t want to go, we could send an army of robo-roach henchmen.

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