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Clarkson team generates electricity from snails

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POTSDAM — The snail, one of nature’s slow pokes, carries its house on its back — but it might also hold the power to fuel a revolution in nanotechnology.

A team of scientists at Clarkson University have developed technology to turn an ordinary snail into a living, moving battery.

The research was published last week in the Journal of the American Chemical Society with Evgeny Katz, Milton Kerker chaired professor of colloid science at Clarkson, as the lead author.

The technology involves tiny implants, called biofuel cells, charged by chemical reactions in the snail’s blood. Though a snail only generates a tiny amount of electrical charge, the electricity is accummulated in a device called a condenser, which can then power another small device if needed.

The idea to use small creatures as portable power sources has been around for a while, said Mr. Katz.

“It was researched already for almost 20 years,” said Mr. Katz. “However, many papers claimed ‘implantable’ electrodes... while very few results were achieved.”

The Clarkson team is excited because their implants have remained functional over the course of several months, an important first.

“Snails can normally live about two to three years in natural conditions,” he said. “In our lab they lived with implanted electrodes six to 12 months, probably because we didn’t provide in the lab perfect conditions similar to natural.”

Mr. Katz said the technology has medical applications. Tiny devices could sense changes in blood chemistry or temperature in patients, drawing their power from the chemical reactions in human blood.

“The area of the future applications includes environmental monitoring for various reasons, mostly military and homeland security,” he said. “The research has clear military homeland security importance.”

The industrial and military applications could include using snails or other animals to power cameras, chemical detectors or navigational sensors.

Any application, however, is a long way off.

“It is only basic scientific research,” he said. “Practical applications are years ahead.”

In the future, Mr. Katz will move the research on to larger and more complex creatures.

”We can use different kinds of small living creatures, insects, snails, worms, et cetera,” he said. “Some of the experiments are in progress.”

Mr. Katz partnered with Professors Lenka Halámková, Jan Halámek and Vera Bocharova from Clarkson, and Alon Szczupak and Lital Alfonta from Ben Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel.

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