Bacteria are often associated with disease – but in the future they could serve as a potent power source. University of Oxford researchers recently used bacteria to spin rotors in tiny ‘wind farms‘ – and they think these microscopic engines could power small electronic components like smartphone microphones.
If you’ve ever looked at bacteria under a microscope, you’ve probably seen a lot of random movement. Under ordinary circumstances, there’s not yet a way to get power from that spontaneous motion. Oxford researchers immersed a “lattice of 64 symmetric microrotors” into fluid filled with bacteria, and found the bacteria organized their movement in such a way that the microrotors spun in opposite directions – kind of like a wind farm. This organized movement creates a steady stream of power.
The paper’s co-author Tyler Shendruk said in an Oxford press release, “When we did the simulation with a single rotor in the bacterial turbulence, it just got kicked around randomly. But when we put an array of rotors in the living fluid, they suddenly formed a regular pattern, with neighboring rotors spinning in opposite directions.”
We probably won’t be powering homes with bacteria any time soon – but this teeny power source could be beneficial for micromachines. The team said these little wind farms could also drive “devices that are self-assembled and self-powered.” Another paper co-author, Julia Yeomans, said “Nature is brilliant at creating tiny engines, and there is enormous potential if we can understand how to exploit similar designs.”