Creature Concept: Conductor Mite

Here’s a creature concept design I came across on the DeviantART page of artist Douglas Hall (who goes by the DeviantART handle “semiconductor“).

conductor_mite_by_semiconductor-d3adov2

The artist provided little information about the creature except that it feeds on electricity. He calls this animal a “conductor mite”.

The idea of a life-form feeding on electricity is not as crazy as it might sound. There’s actually a basis for this in nature. Scientists recently discovered bacteria here on Earth that feed on electrons, several species of them in fact. So called “electric bacteria” can be found living below ground in rocks and metals.

“Stick an electrode in the ground, pump electrons down it, and they will come: living cells that eat electricity.”

– Catherine Brahic, New Scientist Magazine

You can read more about “electric magazine” in this New Scientist Magazine article, but to cut a long story short the microscopic organisms function in a similar way to most animals, it’s just that they do it more efficiently. We consume sugar. Why sugar? Because sugar has extra electrons. Our cells break down the sugars, releasing those electrons and channelling them to the oxygen we inhale. By consuming pure electrons, the bacteria are simply cutting sugar out of the equation.

So, is the conductor mite feeding on pure electrons? It makes sense.

It’s also possible that the conductor mite has “electric bacteria” inside its body and has formed a symbiotic relationship with them, the same way that we have a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria in our guts.

See the green slime dribbling out of the sphincter below the creature’s eye? That could be faeces composed entirely of dead electric-eating bacteria (your faeces is mostly composed of dead bacteria too). It could also be mouth, or both.

What about the purple crystal on the creature’s back? Crystals make very poor conductors and are generally electrical insulators. I’m guessing the artist didn’t know that. However crystals can also be used to store energy, so applying a bit of creative sci-fi jiggery-pokery could lead us to assume that it’s just an energy reserve. To build this crystalline energy store, the conductor mite would need to consume food other than pure electricity, but it would likely be a very efficient animal nonetheless. Feeding on electrons present in its environment (and using the energy stored in its crystal) it could probably survive long periods without solid food.

Another creature that feeds on electrons is the Kzzt, an Alien August competition entry by Li Jia Yang.


Article by Mark Ball.

Artwork by Douglas Hall (AKA “semiconductor“).

  • Christmas Snow

    The New Scientist page of the article did not have a comment so I couldn’t ask the writer of this article. The video shows that bacteria attach themselves to a food source at one end (via nano hair named ‘Pili’) and an oxygen source at the other. Electron flows from the food to the oxygen. I tried to parallel that to a fuel cell, but realized that in a fuel cell the positive ions and the negative ions have to meet at the end of the process. (H+ crosses the two membranes and meets the O– to make a water molecule). But then, how do the ionized food particles and the ionized oxygen meet?

    And, while it can be cultivated on electrodes with nothing more than pure energy, how does it grow and multiply?

    Fuel cell illustration (Source: Wikipedia), shows that fuel and air are ionized in separate compartments. This allows the electric current to be separated from the chemicals. The H+ passes through the ionizing membrane to the other side, where it meets the O– and makes a water molecule)

    • Thomas Thorne

      This describes a proton-exchange fuel cell. More information here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton_exchange_membrane_fuel_cell

      A hydrogen atom, once the electron is stripped, merely consists of a single proton. For many purposes in physics, lone protons are referred to as hydrogen ions. The H+ symbols in the illustration are protons. The membrane in the center, labeled ‘electrolyte,’ is electrically insulating, forcing the electrons from the hydrogen to go around where they are turned into useful work through an electrical circuit.

      A problem with the whole fuel cell thing is that hydrogen in this context is an energy transport medium, not an energy source. Free hydrogen is very rarely found in the same place as free oxygen, and vice versa. In the rare case that they are found together, they usually combine into compounds. Energy must be expended to extract it from these compounds, such as via electrolysis of water. You can then store the gas and recombine it into water (or methane, or ammonia) later to produce electrical current, but this doesn’t generate as much energy as the initial electrolysis took to separate it. If it did, this would break the laws of thermodynamics and create a perpetual motion machine.

      Perhaps the creature needs an external electricity source for the other side of that equation. Maybe it needs the extra juice to break water inside its body into hydrogen and oxygen, which it uses to fuel its own metabolism through chemical reactions. Or something to that effect.

  • Thomas Thorne

    I imagine as an explanation for the crystal on its back that it might be silicon-based life–and while such a thing doesn’t imply that it lives off electricity, to most laymen silicon has a strong connotation with electricity.

    As we know, most carbon-based animals inhale oxygen, derive energy from it and exhale carbon dioxide. Silicon life may exhale silicon dioxide, which presents a bit of an issue since silicon dioxide is typically a solid instead of a gas. That makes lungs like ours pretty much impossible. Silicon dioxide is far denser than carbon dioxide, so the volume of the exhalation would be much smaller. I imagine that this creature respirates oxygen through some organ and then gradually extrudes the silicon dioxide waste, along with some other impurities related to its metabolism, such as iron. This could form amethyst, a form of silicon dioxide crystal. The crystalline structure is wrong–amethyst would be hexagonal, not cubic–but the color is right.

    Once the crystal grew to a certain size, perhaps it would be shed and started anew. Or maybe it would remain stuck to the animal’s back and its mass would eventually render the creature sessile. Then the now barnacle-like animal would have to stay in place, leeching off whatever source of electrical current it found in its previous stage of development. Unlucky ensigns on cleanup duty would have to go down into the reactor chamber and scrape them off the drive couplings with pickaxes. Or something.

    • Logan Testa

      I really love the idea of this, especially the last bit about them having to be scraped off like some form of space barnacle. Perhaps the green goo they exude is some form of adhesive they use to stick to engines, or possibly acidic to melt through the hull of starships and eat their way through to the engine? I’m looking forward to use this idea in a story sometime soon.

  • zzytyrbsdjfeifbdivnbdug

    i would remind you that those “electric bacteria” do not “eat” electrons but rather feed off an electric potential gradient. This is just the same as the way any electrical component (light,electromagnet,motor,etc) does, harnessing the energy liberated as electrons move across a potential drop (the voltage across the component or bacterium). A larger animal species feeding off an electric gradient would only be possible in an environment with truly huge electromagnetic fields all over the place, like some of the massive currents flowing near jupiter’s aurorae. furthermore if an animal does feed of electricity it will be unlikely to be mobile, even if the potential gradient it straddles can provide enough energy to power a mammal like high energy lifestyle the electric animal would have no need to move because it would have grown in a place where the charge reservoirs forming the gradient were large enough not to be affected by it’s drawing off of charge and perhaps even constantly replenished by an outside energy source. Such a species would not be well adapted to run from predators either, because there may only be a very limited number of locations where the gradient is good for it to use and also predators would be unlikely to evolve in an environment where electric gradient feeding had developed in the first place.

    • Logan Testa

      Perhaps they could have formed a sort of symbiotic relationship with another creature on their planet that somehow releases electricity as some sort of waste product, or they exist on a planet that has an extremely strong magnetic field, with a type of “thermal” vent that vents electricity instead of heat. Either way, great points! I’m just trying to think of how this creature could really exist in some way.