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New Speed Record for Wheelchairs, Fly-fueled Robot, Prisoners Pick Peculiar Pets

by Bethany Halford
September 27, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 39


New speed record for wheelchairs

A son-in-law who's good with power tools can certainly come in handy, but Giuseppe Cannella's mother-in-law got more than she bargained for when she returned home from a vacation to find a jet engine attached to her wheelchair. The turbocharged chair can now reach speeds greater than 60 mph.

The design is actually quite simple. Cannella, who lives in Luton, England, bolted the jet engine onto the back of the chair and built a steering mechanism for the front.

"Originally, it was a gimmick. I had a jet engine, and I was going to put it on a go-cart," Cannella told BBC News. "But the missus says, 'Put it on something unusual,' and so I put it on the mother-in-law's wheelchair.

"She was on holiday at the time, so she didn't know what I was doing until she came back," he added. "She actually thought I was doing it for her." Fortunately, Cannella's mother-in-law--who has Parkinson's disease--already had a new wheelchair.

Cannella has been wowing crowds locally with demonstrations of the high-powered wheelchair. Last month, he raised funds for the Parkinson's Disease Society by showing it off at the British Model Flying Association's annual U.K. national championship.


Fly-fueled robot

The first robot to run on unrefined fuel has been developed by scientists at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, according to the Sept. 11 issue of New Scientist. The unrefined fuel comes from an unusual source--flies.

With a top speed of 10 cm per hour, EcoBot II may not move like a jet-powered wheelchair, but engineering professor Chris Melhuish and his team hope the self-sustaining "release and forget" robot may someday be deployed in environments that are hazardous for humans. For example, the robot could be used by the military to monitor temperature or toxic gas concentrations in an inhospitable area and then transmit the data back to a base station.

The robot derives its energy from chitin in the insects' exoskeletons. It has an array of eight microbial fuel cells that break down the polysaccharide into sugars. Each fuel cell has an anaerobic chamber filled with raw sewage--provided by the university's local utility, Wessex Water.

Bacteria in the slurry metabolize the chitin and its sugary components, releasing electrons in the process. Those electrons are then harnessed to create the electric current that drives EcoBot II.

"Every 12 minutes it gets enough energy to take a step forwards 2 cm and send a transmission back," Melhuish said when he described the robot's modest perambulatory prowess to New Scientist.

For the moment, EcoBot II doesn't have to catch its supper. Melhuish's team hand-feeds it fistfuls of dead bluebottles. But the robot makes the most of those morsels. It can travel for five days on just eight juicy flies.

Melhuish's team ultimately wants to make EcoBot II a predator capable of catching its own flies. They imagine fitting the robot with some type of flytrap that uses raw sewage as bait. Unlucky flies would be sucked into the fuel cell's digestion chambers by a pump.

"One of the great things about flies is that you can get them to come to you," Melhuish explained.

Prisoners pick peculiar pets

In England, flies need to worry about predatory robots, but in Australia, the redback spider should take heed of inmates at Grafton prison.

Four of the deadly spiders were found in a jar at a New South Wales prison in February, according to prison records that surfaced earlier this month. It has been suggested that the prisoners were milking the redbacks for their lethal venom, which they then diluted and used as a narcotic.

Prison authorities were skeptical about the claim, however, and said that it had come from a lone, unreliable inmate. A prison spokesman told BBC News that it was more likely that the prisoners kept the spiders as pets. The redback spider's venom can cause nausea, pain, and fever. A single bite can kill a child.

This week's column was written by Bethany Halford. Please send comments and suggestions to


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