Researchers based at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory – a joint venture between the University of the West of England and University of Bristol – have created four generations of EcoBots in the past 10 years, each of which is powered by electricity-generating microbial fuel cells that employ live microorganisms to digest waste organic matter and generate low-level power.
In the future, it is believed that EcoBots could be deployed as monitors in areas where there may be dangerous levels of pollution, or indeed dangerous predators, so that little human maintenance is needed.
It has already been shown that these types of robots can generate their energy from rotten fruit and vegetables, dead flies, waste water, sludge and human urine. The new device, which has an internal volume of 24.5 ml, works in a similar fashion to the human heart by compressing the body of the pump and forcing the liquid out.
This was achieved using “artificial muscles” made from shape memory alloys – a group of smart materials that are able to ‘remember’ their original shape.
When heated with an electric current, the artificial muscles compressed a soft region in the centre of the heart-pump causing the fluid to be ejected through an outlet and pumped to a height that would be sufficient to deliver fluid to an EcoBot’s fuel cells.
The artificial muscles then cooled and returned to their original shape when the electric current was removed, causing the heart-pump to relax and prompting fluid from a reservoir to be drawn in for the next cycle.
A stack of 24 microbial fuel cells fed on urine were able to generate enough electricity to charge a capacitor. The study has been published in journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.