The Potential to Generate Power from Our Brains

in Article
October 17th, 2012


Technology has largely improved the quality of life for patients needing implantable electronic devices, such as pacemakers or cochlear implants. Pacemakers allow for the heart to function properly and cochlear implants restore hearing to deaf patients. The downfall of these types of technologies is the way in which they are powered. Batteries are a common power source, and while they can be designed to have lifespans of several years, they do eventually need to be replaced. One could argue that this, to an extremely small degree, undermines the benefits of having the implantable device.

Researchers at MIT may have found a way to completely remove this inconvenience associated with having an implantable electronic device. What if we used the resources in our own body to power the electronic components we put into it after injury?

Glucose Fuel Cell Schematic

The researchers aimed to harness cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to power a simple chip. They chose the CSF because it is mostly void of cells and proteins, free of the immune system, and has glucose levels comparable to other areas of the body (blood and tissues). This makes it an ideal niche to implant a device that uses the glucose present to generate power.

The fuel cell itself is composed of platinum roughened with aluminum to increase surface area available for oxidizing glucose. More specifically, glucose is oxidized at the anode of the fuel cell and oxygen is reduced to water at the cathode. The fuel cell is tested in artificial CSF and able to generate several hundred microwatts of power. It is also biologically compatible because it does not disrupt any natural processes of the CSF. The rate at which the cells use glucose and oxygen is much lower than their respective replenishment rates, so in theory, the fuel cell could produce electricity without causing chemical instability in its environment.

While stable in a biological environment, right now this fuel cell does not generate a lot of power. It’s not enough to power any sort of electronic implant currently available. It is also in the earliest stages of development as it has not been tested in real CSF or in vivo, animal models or humans. The researchers hope that as the technology is developed and improved, we will potentially be able to use the fuel cells to power devices such as prosthetic limbs in paralysis patients. For patients needing all types of electronic implant, the establishment of this technology could dramatically change the way they live their lives, dramatically improving quality of life for some, and change the field of biological electronics.

References:
Fuel Cells Run on Brain Power - Science

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