Next-generation Mars rovers might not need solar panels or plutonium packs for juice — they’ll bring microbes with them to use in fuel cells. The Naval Research Laboratory is working on potential fuel cell designs that will provide lasting power via the reproductive cycle of bacteria astronauts.It would certainly be a departure from typical protocols that call for scrubbing all signs of life from any interplanetary gadgetry. But Navy officials say it could be more efficient and reliable than other power sources.
A microbial fuel cell could provide power in two ways: a continuous stream to maintain onboard control systems, and by charging a battery or capacitor that could be used to drive more power-hungry scientific instruments. A current prototype model would work with a bacteria called Geobacter sulfurreducens, an anaerobic organism that breaks down metals. The fuel cell would be ideal for long-duration missions, according to the Navy. Only one drawback: The Navy envisions a teeny rover weighing just 2 pounds, a far cry from the behemoth Curiosity rover or its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity.