A snail-inspired robot aims to fight microplastic water pollution


A team of Cornell University researchers is creating a snail-inspired robot to help remove microplastics.
Joana Campos Joana Campos Weathered Portugal 4 minutes

Plastic pollution in the oceans poses a serious threat, with millions of tons settling in the seas every year, from large impurities to microplastics. The danger goes beyond marine life becoming entangled in larger plastics and ingesting microplastics, which harm species and affect the entire marine food chain.

While current efforts focus on removing visible plastic waste through initiatives such as ocean cleanup projects, these measures may not effectively address the widespread problem of microplastics.

Common methods of collecting larger debris such as nets or conveyor belts, they are not useful for collecting microplastics because these tiny particles require energy-intensive pumping mechanisms to extract them.

To tackle this challenge, scientists from Cornell University they were inspired by the Hawaiian apple snail. This innovative approach aims to develop a prototype robot capable of mimicking the flapping motion of a snail to displace a stream of water and capture microplastics.

Similarities between this robot and snails

The robot, modeled after the Hawaiian apple snail, mimics the movement of a snail’s leg to guide the flow of water and capture floating particles. Sunghwan Jungprofessor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering Cornell University and one of the authors of the study explained that he was inspired by the way a snail collects food particles at the water-air interface to develop a device capable of collecting microplastics in the oceans or on the water surface.

The way the snail interacts with its environment was key to the creation and refinement of this robot.

A modified prototype, derived from an existing design, needed to be scaled for use in real environments. Using a 3D printer, researchers created a flexible carpet-like board that could undulate.

Below, the spiral structure rotates like a corkscrew, causing the carpet to undulate and create a wave in the water. Understanding the fluid flow was critical and required analysis to characterize the pumping behavior.

youtube video id=vyisNKCrLRQ

The fluid pumping system, inspired by snail technology, works openly in the air. The researchers found that a closed system with a closed pump and using a hose to suck up water and particles would require high energy consumption. In contrast, the open system inspired by the snail turned out to be much more efficient.

Despite its small size, the prototype runs on just 5 volts of electricity, demonstrating its ability to absorb water. A flotation device may be needed to balance the weight of the battery and motor to prevent the robot from sinking.

Link to news:
Pandey A, Chen Z, Yuk J, et al. Optimum pumping of the free surface with a wavy carpet. Nature Communications (2023).


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