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From Insects to Cyborgs: Biofuel Cell from Cockroaches

Updated on January 7, 2017

Cockroaches are one of the oldest groups of insects. They have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. They can live for almost a month without food, and almost two weeks without water. They can easily adapt to the changes of the environment. They help decompose forest litter and animal fecal matter, and these wastes serves as food for other animals. But these insects also contain NAD (Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) which is a coenzyme found in living cells. This coenzyme could possibly result into a new by-product, which is, fuel.

Cockroaches are generally rather large insects. Most species are about the size of a thumbnail, but several species are bigger. Cockroaches have a broad, flattened body and a relatively small head. They are generalized insects, with few special adaptations, and may be among the most primitive living neopteran insects. The mouthparts are on the underside of the head and include generalized chewing mandibles. They have large compound eyes, two ocelli, and long, flexible, antennae.

Cockroaches live in a wide range of environments around the world. Pest species of cockroaches adapt readily to a variety of environments, but prefer warm conditions found within buildings. Many tropical species prefer even warmer environments and do not fare well in the average household. Cockroaches leave chemical trails in their feces as well as emitting airborne pheromones for swarming and mating. These chemical trails transmit bacteria on surfaces. Other cockroaches will follow these trails to discover sources of food and water, and also discover where other cockroaches are hiding. Thus, cockroaches can exhibit emergent behavior, in which group or swarm behavior emerges from a simple set of individual interactions.

American cockroach (Periplaneta americana), also known as the palmetto bug or water bug, particularly in the southern United States, is the largest species of common cockroach, and often considered a pest. They are now common in tropical climates because human activity has extended the insect's range of habitation, and global shipping has transported the insects to world ports.

American cockroaches generally live in moist areas, but can survive in dry areas if they have access to water. They prefer warm temperatures around 29 °C (84 °F) and do not tolerate cold temperatures. In residential areas, these cockroaches live in basements and sewers, and may move outdoors into yards during warm weather. These cockroaches are common in basements, crawl spaces, cracks and crevices of porches, foundations, and walkways adjacent to buildings. The American cockroach is a scavenger that feeds on decaying organic matter and a variety of other foods. It is particularly fond of fermenting foods.

Biofuel from Cockroaches

Recently, the researchers at Case Western Reserve University have figured out how to make cockroaches into batteries. The cockroach-powered biofuel cells run on hemolymph, the stuff roaches have instead of blood. They combine sugar from the hemolymph with oxygen from the air to make electricity.

The sugars in a cockroach's belly have been enclosed by a fuel cell and is converted into electricity, which is a big step toward turning insects into cyborgs. Once miniaturized to the point that the fuel cells are non-invasive to the cockroaches, they can be implanted to power sensors or recording devices. According to Daniel Scherson, a chemist at Case Western Reserve university in Cleveland, a rechargeable battery inserted along with the so-called biofuel cell would store the trickle of energy it generates. "If you want to be futuristic, one may use the energy stored to try to control the neurological system of the cockroach and then you might be able to (control) the cockroach (with) a joystick."

Sugar fuel as the Power Supply

The power supply for this fuel cell depends on the food that the cockroaches eat, avoiding the need for devices that harness electricity from movement, such as shoes that turn mechanical energy into electricity. In the research, the fuel cell devised by Daniel Scherson's team uses a series of reactions. They used enzymes to convert energy stored as sugars into electricity. This produces split reaction. The first enzyme breaks down the sugar trehalose, which cockroaches constantly produce from their food, into two simpler sugars. The second enzyme oxidizes the simple sugars, releasing electrons that can then be funneled together to electrodes where they are captured and delivered to oxygen. The team first tested the system on trehalose solutions, then inserted prototype electrodes into the belly of a female cockroach. It worked. The biofuel cell produced a trickle of electricity — 0.2 volts.

If this research continues, the possibility of creating a cyborg out of a creepy insect could bring benefit to us. In other parts of the world where there is economic crisis, one of the most affacted products are the oil products. This economic crisis needs a solution about substituting this expensive oil and fuel products through the use of “biofuel” which is cheaper than the fossil fuel, and at the same time, more environmental-friendly. The cockroaches (mainly the household cockroaches) contains NAD (Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) which can be converted into a by-product gas fuel. Rather than being harmful pests, it would be better if the can be converted into a biofuel that will bring a big help in the industry.

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