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Mayfly-Mimicking Sensor to Replace Proverbial Canary in the Coal Mine
Date:6/19/2008

ough the water for some time after the canoe moves on. This is an effect of the water's inertia.

The opposite is true for the tiny mayfly nymph, which is so small that the thickness (viscosity) of the water stops such a current almost as soon as the gill plates stop. Once the mayfly grows to a certain size though, it is capable of creating an inertial effect, or ripples, of its own. Its gills respond accordingly, which is a trait the researchers hope to replicate in their sensors.

"Mayfly sizes are right at the point where issues of viscosity and inertia switch in importance," Kiger said. "Depending on whether the weight or the thickness of the water is influencing its movement, the mayfly switches the way it pumps water to its gills."

The current trend in sensor technology is to strive for smaller and more compact devices to enhance their portability and reduce power consumption. As a result of this trend, traditional technology sensors will run into the same difficulty as experienced by the mayfly as the sensors reach smaller and smaller sizes: eventually a transition will occur where inertial flow mechanisms will become ineffective. Studying how the mayfly deals with this transition can give us insight into how to better develop equivalent engineered sensors.

The next step will be to construct a tiny artificial micro-robot that can reproduce the switchable gill action of the mayfly nymph. Such a mechanism could be installed in sensors intended to detect unhealthy air in otherwise stagnant areas, such as in subway stations or mines. If a miniature set of robotic mayfly gill plates can move air over a sensor, potentially harmful substances can be detected faster - and no canaries would be harmed in the process.

This work is been supported by the National Science Foundation. Entomology graduate student Andrew Sensenig also contributed to this research.

NOTE TO EDITORS: Images are available with the online version of this rel
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SOURCE A. James Clark School of Engineering
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