Fuel cell technology is hyped as a possible future power system for electric vehicles, but it’s actually got a plethora of uses: The latest, and perhaps greatest, is a glucose cell for medical devices that could get its “fuel” from your body.
The innovation is coming from France’s Joseph Fourier University, where they’ve been experimenting with the complex physics and chemistry needed to create a miniature glucose-powered electricity generating device. The goal was to make the device practical in terms of acquiring its fuel directly from a living body–where it also serves as a fuel, of course–and also in terms of generating enough electricity to power embedded medical devices like pacemakers.
The trick the scientists worked out was to build the cell’s electrodes out of compressed graphite, which has been treated with enzymes that oxidize incoming glucose molecules, with a resulting release of electrical energy. Add in a plastic-based membrane that only permits glucose and oxygen to penetrate and some platinum wiring and what you get is the world’s first successful glucose fuel cell that can harvest chemicals already present in a living organism. It’s capable of putting out a peak power of 6.5 microwatts in its experimental implementation, which is not enough to power a typical pacemaker (which needs around 10 microwatts) but the team is confident that the tech can be optimized to achieve this power output.
So what’s all the buzz about this device? Its potential is absolutely incredible for medical devices that are permanently implanted into patients’ bodies–things like pacemakers at the moment, but potentially in the future including gizmos like insulin pumps or, just possibly, an artificial heart. In one stroke, this reduces the need for complex surgery to replace the conventional power cells inside these devices, with all sorts of health and lifestyle benefits of having a reliable self-fueling electricity supply–along with the undeniable cachet of turning its users into genuinely bionic people.