This ultrathin fuel cell could power body implants with electricity from blood glucose

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This fuel cell can convert the glucose in your blood into electricity, allowing you to power medical implants and other in-body sensors without the use of batteries.

Engineers at MIT and the Technical University of Munich have created a new type of glucose fuel cell that is only 400 nanometres thick – thinner than a sheet of paper that is approximately 100,000 nanometres thick.
The researchers hope to use this cell to power medical implants and sensors in the human body without the use of batteries or other energy storage devices.

The fuel cell team published a research paper titled “A Ceramic-Electrolyte Glucose Fuel Cell for Implantable Electronics” in Advanced Materials.Philipp Simons, Steven A. Schenk, Marco A. Gysel, Lorenz F. Olbrich, and Jennifer L. M. Rupp are among the paper’s co-authors.

The fuel cell can generate about 80 milliwatts of electricity per square centimetre using glucose, which the researchers claim is the highest power density of any glucose fuel cell to date.Aside from its size and efficiency, the new device is also long-lasting.It is said to be resistant to temperatures of up to 600 degrees Celsius.

Jennifer L M Rupp, thesis supervisor and corresponding author, had the idea for the device while waiting for a diabetes test while pregnant with her second child.Rupp described herself as a “bored electrochemist” who wondered what could be done with blood sugar in the human body.

“In-body implants, such as pacemakers or brain implants, have a sizable market.”The problem with them is that current batteries are too large and have a low energy density.”There is also a chance that a patient will die during a battery replacement surgery,” said Rupp.

Instead of storing bulky batteries inside the human body to power medical implants, fuel cells like these could potentially be used to derive energy directly from the glucose in our bodies.

“As technology advances, there will be more medical implants that can be implanted in the human body to make our lives easier.”These could be sensors or even devices that automatically deliver medication, for example.All such smart devices would include a silicon chip that would require power.That is where we see a niche application for such micro fuel cells,” she explained.

The team’s ultra-thin glucose fuel cell is still in the early stages of development and has yet to receive FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) approval.

“Conventionally, solid oxide fuel cells have a lifespan of around 10,000 hours.”Ideally, this device should be able to stay in the human body for an extended period of time without requiring approval.”However, it is too early in the research stage to confirm that,” she explained when asked about the device’s lifespan.

Rupp believes that if the research receives the necessary funding and resources, such a device could be in the early stages of real-world development in as little as three years.

According to the study, the power requirements for implantable sensor-like devices typically range between 100 nW and 1mW, implying that such fuel cells could potentially power them.However, for more power-hungry devices, such as pacemakers, multiple fuel cells may be required to generate enough power.

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