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Wednesday, 19 July, 2000, 18:07 GMT 19:07 UK
Robot has sweet tooth
Robot Stuart Wilkinson
By BBC News Online's Matt McGrath

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 their heads

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.

Veggie Power

"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 intervention."

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 eating them."

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 robot."

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