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Is it possible (either through genetic engineering or evolution) for a biological creature to be able to detect and absorb electricity from power sources like batteries or other animals?

I know that a shark can detect electrical fields (via its Lorenzini ampulae) in water, but can a biological creature detect it in the air?

If this can be done, how would it work? Absorption through touch? And can it discharge the stored electricity like an electric eel as a means of defense/hunting? What would happen to its victims if their electricity is drained?

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    $\begingroup$ Even humans can detect a strong enough charge field on the air, I know of no animals with any extra sensitivity adaptations though. You want to use either science-based or reality-check not both, reality-check - science-based - hard-science is a continuum. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jun 5 '18 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ At what sort of range? A few centimeters? A few meters? A few kilometers? Also how large a creature? Microbe-sized? Rat-sized? Human-sized? Whale-sized? $\endgroup$ – Schwern Jun 5 '18 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash I don't think that's true; you can use both science-based and reality-check in a question. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 5 '18 at 18:44
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 Yet I've been pointed at the same metapost as a reason not to use more than in the past, oh well. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jun 5 '18 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash It depends on the particular question and the situation it's describing. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 5 '18 at 18:50
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Yes. You want a hornet-like platypus in the rainforest.

Hear me out.

Water conducts electricity substantially better than air, salt water in particular. Therefore, electroreception - the ability to detect electric currents - is far more common in marine life than terrestrial creatures. Now, it's not nonexistent in land animals; electroreception occurs in a select group of them, the monotremes. The platypus and echidna are notable examples. In particular, long-beaked echidnas live in damp areas of forests. The high humidity in the echidna's habitat makes it possible for it to detect sources of electricity, even weak ones. The platypus has an even more refined sense of electroreception, also enhanced in regions of high humidity.

Your animal will, therefore, likely live in a wet, moist, humid area, probably the tropics. A rainforest is a possibility - a habitat favorable to a platypus. Stay away from deserts and dry, barren areas. Furthermore, areas near lakes and streams might be preferable; the platypus can swim, and electroreception is even more valuable in the water than on land. That might also be a good evolutionary reason why your creature developed electroreception but lives on land: its recent ancestors were mainly aquatic.

We still have to deal with the question of how your animal absorbs, stores, and uses electricity. Absorption would likely happen via modified electrocytes. These are cells - found in certain electroreceptive animals - that use ATP and ion transport to generate electricity. I'd image that running the process in reverse - kind of like turning a motor into a generator - could then use the same pathways to generate ATP, which the animal would store for later.

When it comes to using the electricity, you might want to look at processes in the Oriental hornet, which uses sunlight to create an electric potential in its wings. The exact mechanism through which the hornet uses this is unknown, but it could be used for energizing muscles or for enzyme creation; the hornets are more active when their wings are exposed to more light. I suppose your creature could use the electricity directly for similar processes, or simply store it via ATP and use that for normal cell functions.

Of course, having electrocytes, or cells just like them, means that you should be able to generate electricity and use it to attack other animals. Many species do this, including the infamous electric eel. Now, for your terrestrial animal, attacking with electricity would likely only be a successful method in close quarters combat - remember that air isn't that conductive. Nonetheless, luring prey in until it's within striking distance and then discharging could still be an effective strategy.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem is an electric eel's shock only delivers about 1 or 2 J of energy. Whereas 1 gram of meat stores 9000 J. So it's not a very good storage mechanism. This is why the electric eel uses chemical energy from its meat to charge its electrocytes, not the other way around. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Jun 5 '18 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Schwern Sure, it's not great for storing a whole lot of energy, but if it's not used offensively too often - or if it's used largely when the creature's in the water - that's not going to be terribly problematic. I don't think the OP specified that it needed to be very efficient. But there could be a better electric storage mechanism I'm completely not thinking about. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 5 '18 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ +1 just because of the hornet-like platypus and this comment in chat $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jun 5 '18 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ That opening sentence though... $\endgroup$ – SealBoi Jun 6 '18 at 9:17
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Units

Before we begin, let's get our units straight.

  • Energy - an absolute amount of energy measured in Joules, Watthours, and calories.
  • Power - energy applied over time, measured in Watts or Joules per second.

1 Watthour is 1 Watt of power delivered for 1 hour. A Watt is 1 Joule/second. 1 hour is 3600 seconds. So 1 Watthour is 3600 Joules.

This gets important because while some biological organisms can deliver a lot of power, like an electric eel shock, they do it for a very, very, very short period of time resulting in very little energy transfer.


"Draining" an organism's electricity

No, you can't make an organism that drains the electrical energy of another organism. Organisms aren't batteries that can be drained and nerves aren't wires.

Instead, each neuron acts like a member of a bucket brigade: An electrical potential travels along one of its axons, which is somewhat like a tentacle on an octopus, all the way to the tip of the axon through the movement of sodium and potassium cations. These cations move in and out of small “gates” in the membrane surrounding the partitioned compartments which are strung along inside the axon: The ions do not move down the line, but they cause the gates in the adjacent compartment to open and close. And, so on. Nowhere there does electricity flow like it does through metallic wires.
At the tip of each axon is a synaptic gap between it and the tip of another neuron's axon. The signal is transmitted across the synapse by the release of special uncharged — electrically neutral — chemicals called neurotransmitters.
All grossly simplified, of course.

I said organisms aren't batteries... but they are. Nerve cells are "charged" by chemical energy from things like ATP. They use this chemical energy to transport ions against the magnetic gradient creating potential energy in the form of a charge between the two cells. Nerves are, in effect, little capacitors. But you can see there's normally nothing to draw energy from as nerve cells only have a charge relative to each other, and it's all insulated from the outside world anyway.

Were you to somehow magically overcome all that insulation and absorb the potential energy in the nervous system, the nerve cells would use the chemical energy from ATP to charge up again. I don't know what effect this would have on the organism, but nerve cells normally charge and discharge thousands of times a second.

Basically "absorbing" the organism's electricity means eating the organism. Which is what many organisms already do.


Electric Eels and Static Shock

Though you can build up a charge in an organism by insulating it from the outside world, what we call "static electricity", and can harvest that little bit of electricity, it's inconsequential in most organisms.

Because it can damage sensitive electronics, Fundamentals of Electrostatic Discharge Part Five--Device Sensitivity and Testing provides a delightful simplification of the human body.

The HBM testing model represents the discharge from the fingertip of a standing individual delivered to the device. It is modeled by a 100 pF capacitor discharged through a switching component and a 1.5kΩ series resistor into the component. This model, which dates from the nineteenth century, was developed for investigating explosions of gas mixtures in mines.

Model circuit of a typical human body

The human being, according to an Electrostatic Discharge tester.

Can we get any useful power out of this?

We can calculate the energy of such a jolt. $\text{Energy} = \frac{\text{Capacitance} \times \text{Voltage}^2}{2}$ Numbers vary for the human body, but the highest I've seen is $C = 400 pF$ and $V = 50 \text{kV}$. Make the voltage much higher and it will ionize the surrounding air and discharge. Plugging those in we get 500 mJ which is roughly the energy to lift an apple 50 cm, or more poetically, the acoustic energy of 50 whispers.

Electric eels produce their shock in a similar way, but they have modified muscle and nerve tissue to create a voltaic pile, a simple battery. They're charged in parallel, then switched to series to release a jolt. There's thousands each producing 0.15V which leads to quite a high voltage. Discharged at 1 amp, it can produce 860 watts of power which can literally quite a shock. But it only happens for 2 ms so it only delivers 1 or 2 J.

To put this in perspective, 1 gram of meat contains 9000 J of energy. If you're looking to get energy from an electric eel, eat it.


Absorbing from an outlet

In theory, you could run the process backwards. Instead of using ATP to create a charge you could use a charge to create ATP. The problem is getting this energy to the cells without frying the organism. You can't just absorb it through the skin, skin and fat are very good insulators so you'd fry them overcoming their resistance. You'd need specialized organs to act as "wires".

Handwaving exactly how this would work, how much electricity do you need?

To get a rough estimate, a typical human weighing about 75 kg needs about 2000 kcalories, or 8 MJ, per day. That's about 100kJ/kg. Let's say you "charge" for 2 hours a day, that's $50 \frac{kJ}{kg \times hour}$ or about 14 Watts/kg. So our typical 75 kg human charging 2 hours a day needs 1050 Watts.

This is roughly the power draw of a microwave oven or kettle or toaster, which isn't unreasonable. The problem is 1050 Watts at 110 Volts is 9.5 Amps ($Power = Voltage \times Current$) which will definitely kill you.

But maybe your organism can handle this somehow. Point is, it's a lot of energy coming in fast. It's enough to toast bread and boil water. Your organism would need a way to dissipate and distribute it fast.


Magnetic field detection

Numerous creatures can detect magnetic fields, and electricity generally creates a magnetic field. The Magnetic Sense of Animals (really organisms) breaks down the detection mechanisms for us.

  • Mechanical - tiny magnetic particles that act like little compasses and orient themselves with a magnetic field
  • Induction - moving through a magnetic field induces a current in an organ in the organism
  • Chemical - magnetic fields can change spin states which can be noticed by an organism

Normally there are two reasons to detect magnetic fields.

  • Navigation and orientation along the Earth's geomagnetic field
  • Prey/predator detection - since organisms put out a weak magnetic field

If you wanted to try to get energy from this, the best option would probably be induction. But as we showed above, there just isn't much energy to be had from other animals. Meat is very efficient at energy storage.


Conclusion

Chemicals are much better than electric charge at storing energy. That's why we evolved to use it to store energy, technologically and biologically. Organisms don't store electricity, except in special cases where there's some advantage to be had, and then very small amounts, and very inefficiently. We store chemical energy and convert that to electricity on demand.

That's also why we evolved to eat each other. There isn't much electrical energy in an organism at any given time, even an electric eel's jolt is only 1 or 2 J. An organism's energy is locked up in chemicals. It's much easier to eat your prey's chemicals than to get your prey to convert their chemicals to electricity for you, absorb that, and turn it back into chemicals for efficient storage.

Organisms which do feed directly off energy, photosynthesis, are quite inefficient and don't have the energy to spare for movement or complex actions.

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    $\begingroup$ If you are going to eat an electric eel, it might be safer to use a plastic fork. $\endgroup$ – Penguino Jun 5 '18 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ "you can build up a charge in an organism by insulting it from the outside world" -- that definitely sounds plausible, but you probably meant "insulating" :) (Edit: never mind, that was quick!) $\endgroup$ – Timo Jun 6 '18 at 0:20
  • $\begingroup$ @can-ned_food Yes, thank you. Please feel free to make any corrections as edits, I'm no neurobiologist. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Jun 6 '18 at 2:38
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Eating electricity is possible. In theory we could even do it.

ATP is the energy currency of a cell. If a cell can make ATP, it will make more when exposed to an extrinsic electric current (of the correct magnitude).

https://frequencyspecific.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Cheng-1982.pdf

Table showing the effect of extrinsic current on ATP generation

This experiment was in rat cells. At maximum they produced 5 times more ATP than at baseline. Stronger currents damaged the cells, probably thru ohmic heating.

The report notes that the same thing was found to be true for chloroplasts. Exogenous currents stimulate synthesis, probably by increasing available ATP, and are used clinically to promote bone healing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20182239

An interesting experiment: measure growth of a test organism (yeast?) in a calorically restricted environment, one with a current running thru it and one without. Can the electrical current "calories" boost development of biomass over what the control group achieves with regular calories? What a cool experiment that would be, and easy! Science fair, anyone?

Anyway - your creatures: if they have access to a reliable source of current they might tap into that to augment ATP production - or conceivably be their entire source of energy intake. I proposed organisms that would use a piezoelectric current for energy generation in this questions:Could plants generate energy using wind power?

A current implies time. The electrons must flow. So to get a current running thru you, you must glom on to the source or generate the current constantly (like the piezo trees). You might have something which can accumulate charge like an electrical eel because that would let it keep the current thru the ATP generators at a consistent healthy level and save some energy for later - like we accumulate calories we eat for later use.

As regards draining victims, most animals are not producing an electrical current through them. If there is a charge difference between me and, say, my brothers ear, the charge differential equilibrates suddenly with a static spark. Current implies a slow equilibration of charge difference which requires either some mechanism to keep it slow or a constant generation of charge on one side. Your charge eaters would probably not be going after biological electricity.

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