IN TERRY PRATCHETT’S Discworld fantasy novels, the Unseen University at Ankh Morpork is home to the Hex computer [Wikipedia entry]. It’s ‘circuits’ are glass tubes through which millions of ants constantly run, hence the sticker on Hex that reads ‘Anthill Inside’ — an obvious pun on the ‘Intel Inside’ slogan. You can buy an ‘Anthill Inside’ sticker for your own computer too, as well as mouse-mats and other merchandise, from Paul Kidby.

Strangely, another connection between ants and computing has come to my attention. The connection is formic acid — the simplest carboxylic acid, with chemical formula HCOOH. The Southern Wood Ant, Formica rufa, which is Britain’s largest ant, is able to squirt this insecticidal acid several feet from an acidopore on its abdomen, and uses it as a weapon in the savage battles that often take place in the Spring between neighbouring colonies. The English naturalist John Ray, a Fellow of the Royal Society, first isolated formic acid in 1671 by crushing up ants and distilling them, and the name of the acid comes from the Latin word for ant.

Formic acid is now manufactured chemically and has a number of industrial uses: for example, I have watched Malaysian rubber-tappers add formic acid to organic latex to cause it to congeal into raw rubber.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a research group has devised a simple and safe proton-exchange fuel cell powered by formic acid. The cell converts oxygen and formic acid into carbon dioxide and water through a reaction that takes place on a palladium catalyst. The cells are said to be more efficient than direct-methanol fuel cells, and formic acid is also a safer fuel in case of leakage, as methanol is poisonous and can cause blindness.

Wood Ant, <i>Formica rufa</i>

Wood Ant, Formica rufa

The university has assigned an exclusive licence to manufacture formic acid fuel cells to Tekion, who are developing hybrid Formira™ power modules containing a lithium-ion rechargeable battery and a direct formic acid fuel cell, for use in laptops and mobile telephones. Which is why we can imagine running a laptop on ant juice.