Human Pee May Power Future Environmental Robots (Video)

First Posted: Nov 09, 2013 09:24 AM EST

You wouldn't think that human waste could power a robot--but apparently it can. Scientists have developed a new device modeled on the human heart that's capable of pumping pee into the "engine room" of a self-sustaining robot.

The artificial device incorporates smart materials called shape memory alloys. In theory, it could be used to deliver human urine to future generations of EcoBot, a robot that can function completely on its own by collecting waste and converting it to electricity. It may sound gross, but this particular system would be eco-friendly and useful for cutting down on energy consumption.

Scientists have already 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 organic matter and generate low-level power. In the future, though, these robots could potentially be deployed as monitors in areas where there may be dangerous levels of pollution so that little human maintenance would be needed. Already, researchers have shown these robots can generate their energy using rotten fruit and vegetables, dead flies, waste water, sludge and human urine.

So how does it work exactly? The new device works in a similar fashion to a human heart by compressing the body of the pump and forcing the liquid out. When heated with an electric current, the artificial muscles compress 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 artificial muscles then cool and return to their original shape when the electric current is removed, causing the heart-pump to relax and prompt fluid from a reservoir to be drawn in for the next cycle.

"We speculate that in the future, urine-powered EcoBots could perform environmental monitoring tasks such as measuring temperature, humidity and air quality," said Peter Walters, one of the researchers, in a news release. "A number of EcoBots could also function as a mobile, distributed sensor network. 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 findings are published in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

Want to see the device for yourself? You can check out the video below, courtesy of YouTube.

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