20 July 2012

Snail Power

Welcome back. Did you hear about the latest energy breakthrough? You won’t believe it: snail power.
A snail on the sidewalk (Photo by Mary Bean,

Electrified Snail
Researchers at Clarkson University, Potsdam, N.Y., turned a snail into a living battery that produced as much as 7 milliwatts. (Sorry, I’ve got to be graphic.) They cut slits in the shell and stuck electrodes coated with enzymes into the snail’s body. The glucose and oxygen in the blood became biofuel that generated electricity when the electrodes were hooked to a circuit.
Although further work with snails or other little creatures could lead to a means for powering small devices, the Clarkson team is focusing on human biomedical applications. Could the approach be used to power a heart pacemaker?

Are you picturing scientists, huddled around the operating table, dropping a snail into someone's chest? Eeeyew! Wrong picture. If the research is successful, they'd be tapping into the human bloodstream with bioelectrodes just as they did with the snail.

Powering Up
As impressed as I am with what they’ve accomplished and are planning, I don’t understand why they’re thinking so small. (That might be a consequence of working with snails.) Could snails be used to power, say, a house?
Our electric bill shows our monthly energy usage ranges from about 500 kilowatt hours (kWh) to 1200 kWh. A quick calculation shows that it would take only about 90,000 snails, comparable to the snail used in the experiment, to power our household at 700 kWh per month. (We would stay on the grid for the rest.)
I know, I know; that’s a lot of electrode implanting and wire, snails need to be fed and cleaned, and they don’t live forever. But think about it. Instead of growing mushrooms in your basement, you could have snails. Fortunately, they’re herbivores so you don’t have to worry about…you know, horror movie stuff happening.
You’d have to keep them in some sort of closed area. They’re not going to hold still, but then “slower than a snail’s pace” is not an empty cliché. And they usually leave a trail.

As for the number of snails, the Clarkson experiment used what appeared to be an average, run of the mill snail. What if the U.S. Department of Energy gave a grant to experiment with giant African snails? One of these guys/girls (they’re hermaphrodites) can weigh a pound or more.  
Giant East African snails, Lissachatina fulica, formerly 
Achatina fulica. (Photo by Roberta Zimmerman, 
USDA APHIS, Bugwood.org)
While the average giant snail isn’t that overweight, if you can get the big ones and if weight equates to power, you might get by with fewer than 2000 snails in your basement. Now are you getting excited about the possibilities?

Warning! Do not rush out to buy equipment for breeding giant African snails! They don’t need help or encouragement. They spread rapidly and are a serious agricultural pest. They’re also illegal in the U.S. This research will have to be done with extraordinary care.

Wrap Up

Doing background on this subject, I found many references on the care and feeding of land and water snails. I had no idea that people kept land snails as pets. Forgive me. If I didn’t find that repulsive, I wouldn’t promote stabbing them with bioelectrodes.

Anyway, in case your basement snail power source fails, always keep a good supply of butter and garlic on hand. And be sure to cook each snail really well. Thanks for stopping by.
New Scientist report, including a video, on the Clarkson work:

Abstract of Clarkson paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ja211714w

U.S. Department of Agriculture’s giant African snail pest alert:

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