Snail-Inspired Robot Could Scoop Up Ocean Microplastics
The Hawaiian apple snail has inspired the design of a robot that could scoop up ocean microplastics.
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Inspired by a small and slow snail, scientists have developed a robot protype that may one day scoop up microplastics from the surfaces of oceans, seas and lakes.
The robot’s design is based on the Hawaiian apple snail (Pomacea canaliculate), a common aquarium snail that uses the undulating motion of its foot to drive water surface flow and suck in floating food particles.
Currently, plastic collection devices mostly rely on drag nets or conveyor belts to gather and remove larger plastic debris from water, but they lack the fine scale required for retrieving microplastics. These tiny particles of plastic can be ingested and end up in the tissues of marine animals, thereby entering the food chain where they become a health issue and potentially carcinogenic to humans.
“We were inspired by how this snail collects food particles at the [water and air] interface to engineer a device that could possibly collect microplastics in the ocean or at a water body’s surface, ” said Sunghwan “Sunny” Jung, professor in the department of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University. Jung is senior author of a study, “Optimal free-surface pumping by an undulating carpet,” which published in Nature Communications.
The prototype, modified from an existing design, would need to be scaled up to be practical in a real-world setting. The researchers used a 3D printer to make a flexible carpet-like sheet capable of undulating. A helical structure on the underside of the sheet rotates like a corkscrew to cause the carpet to undulate and create a travelling wave on the water.
Due to the weight of a battery and motor, the researchers may need to attach a floatation device to the robot to keep it from sinking, Jung said.
Reference: Pandey A, Chen ZY, Yuk J, et al. Optimal free-surface pumping by an undulating carpet. Nat Commun. 2023;14(1):7735. doi: 10.1038/s41467-023-43059-8
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