Sugar may not be great to ingest in large quantities, but the sweet stuff may one day allow paralyzed patients to move again. Engineers at MIT recently reported that they have developed a glucose-powered fuel cell that can power brain implants–the kinds of neural prosthetics that help people with spinal cord injuries move their arms and legs.
The glucose-powered fuel cell concept has been around for decades, but it’s only now that they have become efficient enough to use. The secret: unlike past models, the MIT researchers made their fuel cell out of silicon, and without biological components that degrade over time. The result is a fuel cell that uses a platinum catalyst to remove electrons from glucose–a process that allows the device to generate hundreds of microwatts of power, or enough to juice up a neural implant.
Neural prosthetics for paralyzed patients still aren’t reality, but researchers have shown that patients can use brain-machine interfaces to power robotic arm. When those neural prosthetics are ready, the glucose-powered fuel cell will be waiting: it should be able to gather all the sugar it could possibly want from the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid, with minimal impact on brain function.
“It will be a few more years into the future before you see people with spinal-cord injuries receive such implantable systems in the context of standard medical care, but those are the sorts of devices you could envision powering from a glucose-based fuel cell,” explained Benjamin Rapoport, the first author on the new MIT study, in a statement.
The glucose-powered fuel cell won’t be limited to spinal injury patients; it could be used to power any kind of brain-to-computer interface. So 15 or 20 years from now, when we all have chips embedded in our brains, we might have have sugar to thank.