All posts by Callum Tyndall

The UK’s first ever robot is returning, with a little help from you

The world-renowned Science Museum is rebuilding one of the world’s first ever robots, named Eric. It has launched a Kickstarter campaign aimed at bringing back the UK’s earliest robot, and hopes to once more exhibit and take him on a global tour, as he did nearly 90 years ago.

In 1928, Captain W H Richards and A H Reffell built Eric, one of the world’s first ever robots, created less than a decade after the word robot was first used. The quintessential image of a robot, Eric first publicly performed on September 20th 1928, making his debut by giving the opening speech at the Society of Model Engineers’ annual exhibition.

The moving, talking mechanised man was built after the Duke of York, who had originally been intended to open the exhibition, declined the invitation, prompting Captain Richards to decide that “it is a mechanical show, let us have a mechanical man to open it.”

eric the robot edit

Eric weighed just over 45 kilograms and had an armour plated chest, legs and arms, all made from aluminium. On his chest, the letters RUR were written, the initials for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The RUR initials arose from a play of the same name, written in 1920 by Czech writer Karel Čapek, and the first introduction of the word robot to the English language.

Eric was not without flash either, with light bulbs for eyes and capable of running a 35,000 volt charge to produce blue sparks from his teeth.

The impressive nature of the automaton had him taken on a global tour alongside his makers, travelling across the UK, the US and Europe to meet dignitaries, celebrities and crowds of all kinds.

Then, mysteriously, Eric disappeared. However, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, he can be brought back. In collaboration with the Science Museum, expert roboticist Giles Walker, working in part from archive materials and discussions with Science Museum curator Ben Russell, will rebuild Eric in the UK.

Robots built by Giles Walker

Robots built by Giles Walker

The Museum stumbled across Eric’s story while researching their upcoming Robots exhibition and, if the campaign is successfully funded, the rebuilt Eric will star in the exhibition in February 2017.

Before that, there will be a public display in October 2016 that will allow everyone to see the robot, for free, for a whole month. More than that though, just as he did at the time of his original creation, Eric will travel the world with the exhibition, before returning to the Museum as part of its permanent collection.

Pioneering “one-pot” recipe to enable biofuels to compete with fossil fuels

A principal problem in the production of biofuel, one of the chief emerging alternatives to fossil fuels, is that the complicated process requires the use of multiple containers across production, breaking down the efficiency of the process.

Recently however, as described in a study published in Green Chemistry, researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have successfully engineered a strain of bacteria that will enable the production of biofuel to be carried out in a single pot.

This is a significant step because it could enable biofuels to finally compete with traditional fossil fuels, which can be manufactured in fewer steps and with less management.

f1_sticklen_nrg2336-f22

The process of biofuel creation. Sourced from Nature.com

The study builds on previous research conducted at the Joint BioEnergy Institute that remedied the difficulties of using ionic liquids, which worked efficiently to break down the plant structures but were harmful to the enzymes used in order to produce the actual biofuel.

In 2012, JBEI researchers, including Blake Simmons, a co-author on this paper, discovered a suite of saccharification enzymes that were tolerant to ionic liquids, creating a foundation for the process that the new study’s first author, Marijke Frederix, was able to build on in order to engineer an E.coli strain that was highly tolerant to ionic liquids.

According to Frederix, “armed with the rcdA variant, we were able to engineer a strain of E. coli that could not only tolerate ionic liquid, but that could also produce ionic-liquid-tolerant enzymes that chew up the cellulose, make sugars, eat it and make biofuels.

114856_web

Study first author Marijke Frederix (left) and principal investigator Aindrila Mukhopadhyay

“E. coli remains the workhorse microbial host in synthetic biology, and in our study, using the ionic-liquid-tolerant E. coli strain, we can combine many earlier discoveries to create an advanced biofuel in a single pot.”

Beyond the common products of this process, such as ethanol, researchers are looking to get more out of biofuel and push the process to new areas.

In this case, they used production models already established at the JBEI to create d-limonene, a precursor to jetfuel. The ability to do so, aided by the streamlined process enabled by the new “one-pot” method, shows that biofuel, and those involved in its production, is moving ever closer to its goal of competing with fossil fuels as a fully viable, commercial energy source.

As said by the study’s prinicpal investigator and vice president of the Fuels Synthesis Division at the JBEI, Aindrila Mukhopadhyay: “Being able to put everything together at one point, walk away, come back, and then get your fuel, is a necessary step in moving forward with a biofuel economy.

“The E. coli we’ve developed gets us closer to that goal. It is like a chassis that we build other things onto, like the chassis of a car. It can be used to integrate multiple recent technologies to convert a renewable carbon source like switchgrass to an advanced jet fuel.”