Bug Power: They Could Be Heroes

Blaberus discoidalis
© Jarek Tuszynski / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GDFL

I suppose it’s the cost of living in Florida, but I’m tired of the giant roaches that squeeze into my garage and waggle their antennae at me late at night when I come out to do my laundry. So when I heard that Dan Scherson, a Case Western Reserve University chemistry professor, might have another job for them, I had to give him a call.

Scherson and his research team have created a biofuel cell that uses insects’ own chemistry to make electricity. Their findings appear in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

With such developments, he says, it won’t be long before bugs powered by fuel cells and equipped with sensors could gather and transmit information from a disaster site. “They know how to crawl under the rubble,” he says.

So far Scherson’s team has worked with roaches and moths to convert trehalose, a sugar concentrated in the insects’ blood, into electricity. (This entails cutting into the abdomen of the insect and inserting two electrodes into its blood.) The resulting energy can power a tiny oscillator. According to Scherson, the next step would be to create a smaller and lighter fuel cell (The moths can’t fly with the current one) and to put a tiny sensor on the insect.

“Let’s assume there is a humongous earthquake and the gas pipes are broken and there all sorts of noxious gases because of fires,” Scherson says. “The cockroaches can be the first responders.”

But why not work with insect-like robots instead of real bugs? For now, that’s not feasible, says Scherson. “To generate an artificial muscle that will work like an insect’s is way, way in the future. Less far ahead is to take control of the insect. By stimulating specific regions of the brain, we are going to be able to force the insect to walk to the left, to walk to the right [or] to slow down.” (Personally, I’d like to force them to scurry right out of my garage.)

According to Scherson, the procedure doesn’t hurt the bugs. “Their nerves are nowhere near where we are doing anything,” he says. “If you poke a hole, the insects go about doing what insects do.”