Medical Researchers Harness Human Byproducts To Create Sustainable Biofuel

Medical Researchers Harness Human Byproducts To Create Sustainable Biofuel

Could our bodies themselves act as the sole fuel source for powering medical implants?

Wesley Robison
  • 8 february 2012

A research team, lead by Dr. Serge Cosner, from Joseph Fourier University of Grenoble has created a Biofuel cell technology that receives its power by converting the naturally occurring glucose and oxygen found in the human body into a viable and continuous energy source. The ‘bionic engine’ will make it possible to extend the functional lifetimes of a range of implants and biomedical devices from sensors and drug delivery devices to entire artificial organs. With existing battery technologies, advanced implants like artificial hearts and kidneys can require replacement power sources as often as every few weeks — a process which requires invasive surgery and carries some risk to patients — and demand large amounts of electricity (similar to the heart without a pulse). Dr Cosner’s Biofuel devices could extend the life of implants indefinitely.

Biofuel cells consist of compressed enzymes and carbon nanotubes that create two electrodes, one that gathers electrons from glucose molecules and one that donates an electron to oxygen and hydrogen atoms, creating water as a byproduct. By connecting the electrodes to a circuit, it creates a current of electrons, which means these cells can be charged by simply drinking a coke or having a candy bar. The longevity of many implants like the pacemaker, which draws a minimal amount of energy, are limited by their electrical life rather than mechanical or structural constraints.

Because devices often only last 5 years, some patients have to undergo 2-3 risky surgeries during their lifetimes to ensure they have a fully-functioning implant. Along with improving patients lives, these developments in sustainable Biofuels enable researchers to focus on developing the next evolution in life extending surgeries, organ replacement and bionic limbs. Dr. Cosner’s team isn’t the only one looking to alleviate patient’s risk and open the door to new possibilities.

Prof. Itamar Willner, of the Univeristy of Jerusalem, claims that this novel use of glucose oxidase enzymes has allowed research groups to create internal electrical systems. Wilner explains the future possibilities:

Today we can generate enough power to supply an artificial urinary sphincter, or pacemaker. We are already working on a system that can produce 50 times that amount of power, then we will have enough to supply much more demanding devices.

Looking ahead, this fuel cell technology could have implications beyond the medical industry, ushering in an age of ‘cyborgs’ and fundamentally changing people’s relationship to their personal electronics. To that end, Sony Electronics recently claimed to have a developed a similar device that can power an MP3 player using a glucose solution.

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Image credit: John Pace

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