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Robots of the Future Could Run on Human Urine

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Nov 08, 2013 03:33 PM EST
pee, robots
Robotics engineers have constructed a new device that can pump human waste into the “engine room” of a self-sustaining mechanical system, which employs a team of live microorganisms to digest the organic matter, in the process generating electricity to power the machine. (Photo : Institute of Physics)

Robots of the future may be fueled by pee. Yes, pee.

Robotics engineers have constructed a new device that can pump human waste into the "engine room" of a self-sustaining mechanical system, which employs a team of live microorganisms to digest the organic matter, in the process generating electricity to power the machine.

A recent test of the system used microbial fuel cells, powered by urine, to charge a mobile phone. (See video below.)

Future applications of the system, the researchers contend, could be used in the new generations of more advanced "EcoBots."

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"We speculate that in the future, urine-powered EcoBots could perform environmental monitoring tasks such as measuring temperature, humidity and air quality. A number of EcoBots could also function as a mobile, distributed sensor network," said lead study author Peter Walters, of the University of the West of England.

"In the city environment, they could re-charge using urine from urinals in public lavatories. In rural environments, liquid waste effluent could be collected from farms."

The urine-powered mobile phone charging system is modeled after the human heart. The system compresses a pump to force liquid into the designated space. The system also uses shape memory alloys, a group of smart materials that are able to "remember" their original shape, as the artificial "muscles" in the heart-like system.

"When heated with an electric current, the artificial muscles compressed a soft region in the center 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 researchers explained in a statement. "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."

The fuel cells were able to generate enough electricity to charge a capacitor, and the energy stored in the capacitor was enough start another cycle of pumping from the artificial heart.

"The artificial heartbeat is mechanically simpler than a conventional electric motor-driven pump by virtue of the fact that it employs artificial muscle fibers to create the pumping action, rather than an electric motor, which is by comparison a more complex mechanical assembly," Walters said.

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