Sam Smith

is creating open-source trash-eating robots

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Everything I produce is open-source!
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But the more you pledge...
$3
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The more disruptively awesome stuff I can build!
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And every backer gets to participate in the design process...
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About

Around 300 Million years ago, trees suddenly evolved the ability to synthesize lignin - one of the most complex molecules produced on Earth up until that point. At that time, no fungi or bacteria existed that could break lignin down again, and so for 60 MILLION YEARS (!!!) trees just grew and died and were eventually buried without ever decomposing and returning their carbon and energy and nutrients to the biosphere. This period of time is called the Carboniferous Period, and it's where nearly all of the worlds coal came from.

The Carboniferous Period ended when white-rot fungi finally evolved the chemical machinery to "eat" wood, breaking it down by reacting it with oxygen, turning it into simpler molecules and energy that it could use to grow, replicate, and spread rapidly around the world. We know wood as a completely compostable, biodegradable material, but for 60 million years, it was a persistent environment waste product.

Today, humans are synthesizing massive amounts of another complex organic compound - Plastics - and no natural systems currently exist that can break them down on the scale that we're producing them. This period of time is called the Anthropocene, defined by the impact of human activity on the the biosphere, and how it ends is still up for grabs.

My goal is for the Anthropocene to end the same way that white-rot fungi ended the Carboniferous - by developing the chemical machinery necessary to "eat" plastic and other forms of trash, breaking it down by reacting it with oxygen, turning it into simpler compounds and energy that it can use to grow, replicate, and spread rapidly around the world.

The “Metabolizer” is my ongoing attempt at building a “living machine” - a set of open-source, easy-to-build machines, that function like a living organism does, powering itself, growing, adapting, and replicating, simply by “eating” trash. An idea that really fascinates me is that it doesn’t really matter if a system is “organic” or “artificial”, as long as it is capable of performing a needed ecological service. Most human technology doesn’t act like living organisms, but that doesn’t mean it can’t.

A mushroom degrades lignin by reacting it with Oxygen, releasing CO2 and Water Vapor, generating energy and simpler nutrients. The Metabolizer degrades trash by reacting it with Oxygen, releasing CO2 and Water Vapor, generating energy and simpler nutrients. Chemically speaking, there is no difference between the two.

Like the organs in your body, the Metabolizer is made up of several distinct-but-interdependent machines that work together in order to keep it “alive”.

The Shredder
Is powered by electricity from the generator, and shreds up biomass and plastic waste into tiny bits so that they’re easier to process, the same way your teeth break down food into smaller bits before they’re broken down in your stomach.

The Trash Printer
Is powered by the battery, and turns information and shredded plastic flakes into a wide range of 3D printed parts, the same way your cells produce a wide range of proteins and tissues from information stored in DNA.

The Battery
Is charged by the generator, and ensures that energy is available even when there is no food available, the same way your body stores energy in fat.

The Generator
Is powered by a clean flammable gas produced by the hearth, and turns this gas into electricity, CO2, water vapor, and heat.

The Hearth 
Is a special reactor that thermally decomposes biomass and most plastics into a clean gas that can run an internal combustion engine.

The Structure
Is a simple toroidal structure that encloses the machines (and the folks operating them) and protects them from the wind, rain, and sun.

The Helm
Is a real-time wi-fi connected sensor network and visual feedback system, powered by the battery, that allows an operator to monitor the performance of each system, and tweak parameters to keep the system “alive” for as long as possible, the same way your brain does.

The Game
But how long can a machine like this “stay alive” before it runs out of power and dies? I don’t know, but currently my high score is about 4 minutes. I’ve got plenty of ideas of how to beat that score, but I can only do so much by myself. So rather than trying to develop a perfect working system all by myself, my goal is to create a collaborative, open-source platform that teaches people how to build each of the systems, and gives quantifiable realtime feedback on the performance of each system, in a way that challenges a crew of human operators to work together as a team to tweak, adapt, and improve upon the system, in an attempt to keep it alive for as long as possible, powered by nothing but trash and sunshine, and set an all-time “high score” for the longest continuously-living meta-organism ever built.

The game runs on a computer that is powered by the battery bank, that is ultimately powered the generator and the systems ability to break down waste into energy. The battery bank gives a bit of a buffer, but if the battery dies, the computer dies, and game starts over.


Getting There
Currently, I’ve built and tested working prototypes of each of the systems. They work, but they could be a lot better. The next step is to put them all together and wire them up with sensors, so that we can see how long we can run them, figure out where they could be better, and make systematic improvements.  Getting there takes a lot of time, and a lot of trial and error. This Patreon exists so that I can have a working budget to work towards this enormous goal, month by month.

How it works
Every month, I make a post letting you know how I spent the budget, what I learned, and what I’m going to do next. That's it. If I don't make a post, you don't pay that month. There are no additional perks, except that everything that I produce is open-source and intended for easy replication, and so the faster I can produce those things, the faster you can build them yourself or with your friends, and the faster we can end the Anthropocene. So please pitch in whatever you can spare, and let's make some trash-eating robots!

Goals
45 of 50 patrons
If I can reach 50 backers, donating around $5-10 each, I'll be able to unlock $300-$500 every time I'm ready to move forward on the next step my project! I'll make a detailed post about what I'm going to use the money for and why, and then I'll post updates as I go, and post reflection on how it all went and what I learned before I take the next step. Being able to hack away at my prototypes in $500 chunks would go a long way!
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