By BBC News Online's Matt McGrath
July 19, 2000
A new type of robot that powers itself from what it "eats"
has been developed in the United States.
The robot, or "gastrobot", is the creation of Dr Stuart
Wilkinson, a mechanical engineering professor at the
University of South Florida in Tampa.
You don't see humans walking around with solar panels on
Dr Stuart Wilkinson Officially called Gastronome, the robot
is known for fun as Chew Chew.
It consists of three, metre-long wheeled wagons with a
microbial fuel cell at its heart. This cell uses E.Coli
bacteria to break down food and convert it into electricity.
Dr Wilkinson told BBC News Online that Chew Chew was being
hand fed on a diet of sugar.
Not only did this produce large amounts of energy, more
importantly it did not produce any waste matter.
"At this moment, we're feeding this one sugar lumps and the
only by-products are water and CO2 gas," he said.
Current robot technology is limited by its lack of
independent power sources said Dr Wilkinson, whose research
is reported in New Scientist magazine. He pointed out that
batteries ran out and photovoltaic cells needed sunshine and
took up lots of space.
"After all, nature seems to have adopted this idea of eating
food," Dr Wilkinson said. "You don't see humans walking
around with solar panels on their heads - this concept
enables a robot to exist outdoors without human
Dr Wilkinson, whose work is funded by the Tampa Electric
Company, said that vegetation was likely to prove a useful
source of power for many robots. He said lawn mower robots
would be able to run on the clippings they cut.
"You could have a robot that lives in the guttering,
clearing the leaves that clog it up and powering itself by
But if we build robots to run on vegetation, is it possible
they could also run on meat? Dr Wilkinson said the machines
were unlikely to bite the hand that fed them.
"If you look at pure energy, then meat has a higher
calorific value than vegetation. But there are downsides.
You have to spend more energy luring it, catching it and
killing it. At the moment I'm concentrating on using
vegetation like a cow, rather than building a meat-eating
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