Sensors aren’t just limited to the electrical, mechanical, or chemical realm. Up until 1986, canaries were used as Carbon Monoxide detectors, and food tasters are still used by some heads of state. These so-called sentinel species have been known and used for decades if not centuries. But recent projects using clams to detect water pollution are providing real-time electronic feedback. They are using the species Actinonaias ligamentina, which, as you no doubt recall, was declared “Mussel of the Month” by the University of Wisconsin’s MUSSEL Project back in January 2010. They are more commonly known as mucket clams or mucket mussels, and are particularly sensitive to water pollution — they will clam-up, so to speak, in the presence of contaminated water.
Several municipalities along the Mississippi River installed clam-based sensors back in 2015, and another system was installed in the Anacostia River Estuary in 2011. Polish director Julia Pekla produced a documentary about the clam-based sensors installed at the Dębiec Water Treatment Plant on the Wisła River near Warsaw which has been in operation since 1994. Her documentary is titled “Gruba Kaśka (Fat Kathy)” and won the In Vivo Award at the 2020 Imagine Science Film’s 13th annual film festival (see trailer below).
As shown in the lead photo, a simple electrical contact is mounted on each clam, which closes a circuit with the base contact when the shell is clamped shut. The systems along the Mississippi River use multiple clams, 11 in Minneapolis Minnesota and 16 in Moline Illinois. The system in Poland uses eight clams — when four or more clams are in agreement the system automatically shuts down and alerts the operators. These clams only work for three months, after which they are put into retirement with a mark so they won’t be required to serve again.
The clams contain the electronics, sensors, and means of descending and ascending within their shells. A bunch of them are dropped overboard on the surface. Their shells open, allowing the gas within to escape and they sink. As they descend they sample the water. When they reach the bottom, gas fills a bladder and they ascend back to the surface with their data where they’re collected in a net.
Thus far he’s made a few clams using acrylic for the shells which he’s blown himself. He soldered the electronics together free-form and gave them a conformal coating of epoxy. He’s also used a thermistor as a stand-in for other sensors and is already working on a saturometer, used for measuring the total dissolved gas (TDG) in the water. Knowing the TDG is useful for understanding and mitigating supersaturation of water which can lead to fish kills.
He’s also given a lot of thought into the materials used since some clams may not make it back up and would have to degrade or be benign where they rest. For example, he’s been using a lithium battery for now but would like to use copper on one shell and zinc on another to make a salt water battery, if he can make it produce enough power. He’s also considering using 3D printing since PLA is biodegradable. However, straight PLA could be subject to fouling by underwater organisms and would require cleaning, which would be time-consuming. PLA becomes soft when heated in a dishwasher and so he’s been looking into a PLA and calcium carbonate filament instead.
Check out his hackaday.io page where he talks about all these and more issues and feel free to make any suggestions.
Yes, that is a clam. Yes researchers are using them as batteries. Yes, that quip about the matrix and clam-Neo that is bubbling up into your temporal lobe is appropriate. While keeping a clam as “happy as a clam” might not necessitate a virtual world, they don’t really produce much electricity either. Researchers were able to siphon almost 29 millijoules over the course of an hour. This was enough to turn their electric motor one quarter of a turn.
The researchers tried different ways to connect three clams at a time as a collective living battery. A serial circuit boosted the battery’s voltage (electric potential), whereas a parallel circuit increased the current (rate of charge flow) — but the overall electricity available often changed depending on each clam’s health.