Snails plundered for power – what next?

When we heard that a cockroach had been implanted with a operating fuel cell, we thought nothing more creepy, futuristic and sci-fi fantasy was possible.

But animal-energy research might just be beginning. Researchers at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., recently announced that they successfully implanted an operational fuel cell into live snails that create electricity using the snail’s naturally produced glucose.

When the snails naturally eat and then relax, they continue to produce glucose which is consumed by biocatalytic electrodes to produce electricity, making the snail—now a biotechnological device—into a source of renewable bioenergy.

The snails can produce 7.45 microwatts (a microwatt is one-millionth of a watt) and only for 45 minutes. After that the power they produce decreases 80 percent.

For continuous power, wattage has to be ramped down to 0.16 microwatts. The tiny power increments raise further challenges to a technology that may also cause an uproar among animals rights activists if ever implemented on a large scale.

But the research team, led by Clarkson University Professor Evgeny Katz, claims the snails can live happily with the implanted biofuel cell in a natural environment.

“The animals are quite fit—they eat, drink and crawl. We take care to keep them alive and happy,” Katz told Nature Magazine. Still, the project raises a hosts of ethical questions that may also require a whole new set of regulations on using live animals in energy production.

Besides for the similar cockroach fuel cell project, developed by scientist Daniel Scherson and his colleagues, other projects of this kind have been funded by the U.S. Department of Defense which has been looking at the possibility of developing insect cyborgs for energy production—with the hopes of weaning the country and the army from dependence on imported fossil fuels.

But even with the growing numbers of insect and snail energy projects, this type of technology is still in its infancy and expensive and challenging to design.

Better known bioenergy, like algae-based fuel and biofuels from compost and decomposed organic material, is still more popular as scientists begin to explore the possibilities of harnessing nature for renewable energy production.

But as with fossil fuels, scientists may face some of the supply problems that have caused fossil fuel production to be so problematic. Organic material is not unlimited, just like oil and gas, and once put to use use in large-scale energy production, these materials become more expensive and scarce.

Read more on Katz’s research, which was published online March 8 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Shifra Mincer, EarthTechling