The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Microbes Could Power Future Planetary Rovers

Living batteries could be a super efficient way to generate electricity for space probes

2 min read
Microbes Could Power Future Planetary Rovers

The gigantic rover currently on its way to Mars, Curiosity, is powered by a gigantic butt-mounted radioisotope thermoelectric generator. For the next generation of space probes, the Naval Research Laboratory is looking for power sources that are smaller. Much smaller.

Robots on distant planets and moons (think beyond Mars) can't rely on solar panels for power, since the sun just isn't strong enough out there in the boonies of the solar system. Instead, they've been depending on radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), which are sort of like little nuclear batteries powered by plutonium. They work just fine, and they can last a very long time, since the half life of plutonium 238 is 87 years.

The problem with RTGs is that they tend to be heavy and bulky and not particularly efficient for their size. If you've got a huge 900 kilogram platform like Curiosity that doesn't matter so much, but when we're talking about small mobile planetary rovers RTGs just aren't going to cut it. What may cut it, however, are microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which offer long-term production of little bits of energy in a very efficient package.

MFCs are batteries that are alive. They're full of (you guessed it) microbes, which feed on sugar, a process that produces electrons -- call it a technically sweet fuel cell. The result is a very small amount of electricity, but this electricity is produced very efficiently: Potentially, MFCs can produce energy at above 50 percent efficiency, while RTGs are below 10 percent. While an MFC can't pump out enough juice to drive a rover or anything, they'd be able to keep low power electronics active indefinitely while trickle charging a battery or capacitor, which would be perfect for a small mobile robot that might make occasional jumps to get from place to place. Specifically, the Naval Research Lab is considering implementing an MFC on "a novel tumbling or hopping locomotion system," and they've just been awarded a NASA grant to make it happen.

[ NRL ] via [ Wired UK ]

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less