A Caterpillar Drive That Actually Looks Like A Caterpillar

[Tom Clancy]’s The Hunt For Red October is a riveting tale of a high-level Soviet defector, a cunning young intelligence analyst, a chase across the North Atlantic, and a new submarine powered by a secret stealth ‘caterpillar’ drive. Of course there weren’t a whole lot of technical details in the book, but the basic idea of this propulsion system was a magnetohydrodynamic drive. Put salt water in a tube, wrap a coil of wire around the tube, run some current through the wire, and the water spits out the back. Yes, this is a real propulsion system, and there was a prototype ferry in Japan that used the technology, but really the whole idea of a caterpillar drive is just a weird footnote in the history of propulsion.

This project for the Hackaday Prize is probably the closest we’re going to see to a caterpillar drive, and it can do it on a small remote-controlled boat. Instead of forcing water out of the back of a tube with the help of magic pixies, it’s doing it with a piston. It’s a drive for a solar boat race, and if you look at the cutaway view, it does, indeed, look like a caterpillar.

Instead of pushing water through a tube by pushing water through a magnetic field, this drive system is something like a linear motor, moving a piston back and forth. The piston contains a valve, and when the piston moves one way, it sucks water in. When the piston moves in the opposite direction, it pushes water out.

The goal of this project is to compete against other solar powered remote-controlled boats. Of course, most of the other boats are using a DC motor and a propeller. This is a weird one, though, and we’re very interested in seeing how the production version will work.

To Deal With Plastic Trash, All You Need Is Bugs

Outlawed now in some places, or only available to tote your purchases at a ridiculous premium, the billions of “T-shirt” bags used every year present a serious waste management problem. Whether blowing across the landscape like synthetic tumbleweeds, floating in the ocean as ersatz jellyfish, or clogging up municipal waste streams, finding a way to deal with them could really make a difference. And finding a bug that eats polyethylene and poops antifreeze might be a great first step in bioremediating the mess.

As with many scientific discoveries, learning about the useful and unexpected eating habits of the larval stage of the Greater Wax Moth Galleria mellonella can be chalked up to serendipity. It began when biochemist [Federica Bertocchini] cleaned a wax moth infestation from her beehive. She put the beeswax-loving pests in a plastic bag, later finding they had chewed their way out. Intrigued, she and [Paolo Bombelli] ran some experiments using the bugs. They showed the mechanism wasn’t just mechanical and that the worms were digesting the polyethylene, to the tune of 92 mg consumed for 100 worms in 12 hours. That’s about 1,000 times faster than bioremediation with bacteria.

Furthermore, the bugs excrete ethylene glycol, a useful industrial chemical, in the process. Finally, to see if the process can scale, the researchers showed that a homogenate of wax moth larvae could digest PE sheets. This could lead to an industrial process if the enzymes involved can be isolated and engineered. The letter describing the process is a fascinating read.

While this one may not a classically hackish way to deal with plastic recycling, the potential for this method is huge. We look forward to seeing where this goes.

[Images: César Hernández/CSIC]