Environment Technology

Tiny Bacterial Windfarms Could One Day Become Self-Powered Engines for our Gadgets


Scientists from Oxford University have taken a huge step toward understanding and creating internal power by discovering bacteria that naturally moves like a windfarm.

Dense active matter, such as bacteria, exhibits a bustling response that has historically been understood as chaotic with no tangibly positive outcome. New technology, however, uses virtual simulations to reveal this stormy action can be organized into cylindrical rotors, reminiscent of a windfarm, in order to generate an internally powered source. These natural, tiny power sources could one day become the incredible engines for minuscule, man-made, self-powered, self-assembled, devices.

Doctor Tyler Shendruk, co-author of the team of scientists on this project, is from Oxford University’s Department of Physics. He believes that although many of our society’s energy challenges are on the macroscopic scale, others are miniscule. In order to generate miniature amounts of power for micromachines, he suggests yielding it directly from bacterial suspensions, or other biological systems.

A major problem with extracting power from these bacterial forms has been its disorder. Although dense bacterial suspensions are active solutions, and capable of leading chaotic living flows, these groups are generally too disorderly for anyone to hope for any useful power form.

bacterial windfarms
Bacterial suspensions create chaotic active flows that are normally so disorganized that useful power cannot be extracted from them. But a lattice of microscopic rotors changes this as it balances the active chaotic flow and arranges neighboring rotors to continuously rotate in alternating directions, producing a “bacterial wind farm.” (Image Credit: Amin Doostmohammadi)

But, when Dr. Shendruk’s team dipped a lattice of sixty-four symmetric microrotors into this active fluid, they discovered something miraculous. The bacteria spontaneously organized itself so that neighboring rotors began to spin in opposite directions. This simple, but powerful, organization is a reminiscent of a windfarm on a microscopic level. Importantly, as Dr. Shendruk noted, the rotors naturally self-assembled into a miniscule bacterial windfarms. It wasn’t necessary for the team to design gear-shaped turbines. This discovery was only possible with an array of rotors, of course. When the team completed the exercise with a single rotor into the bacterial turbulence, it thrashed around randomly.

Doctor Amin Doostmohammadi, is the other co-author on this project, from Oxford University’s Department of Physics as well. He emphasized the great significance of this discovery, even though it’s on the microscopic level. Because these biological systems do not need an input power, rather using internal biochemical processes in order to encourage flow, is extraordinarily valuable. He went on to urge consideration of the micro level. The discovery on this micro level demonstrates that the movement generated by biological assemblies is capable of consistently rearranging itself in order to create a mechanical power to rotate a lattice of microrotators.

Professor Julia Yeomans is the senior author on the project, also hailing from Oxford University’s Department of Physics. She emphasized nature’s brilliance at creating tiny power sources and engines, and believes the potential to create similar designs at the macro level is possible as long as we understand the mechanics of it first.

The research was published in Science Advances journal.