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Energy

The enzyme-powered watch, and other battery innovations

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Kevin MacVittie
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This week, the New York Battery and Energy Storage (NY-BEST) technology consortium brought industry leaders and businesses together to discuss innovation in the field.*

And now, researchers are returning to the human body for new inspiration on storing and harnessing energy.

Kevin MacVittie is a graduate research assistant at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY.

He and faculty member Evgeny Katz, have been working on using the components of human blood to power micro-electronics. 

“The goal for this system," MacVittie says, "would be to replace the battery in already implanted micro-electronics, [like] pacemakers [for the heart] for example.”

“Two million pacemakers are implanted every year with a very limited life span due to their battery life, the other electronics in a pacemaker aren’t what fail, it’s the battery. So if you were able to pair it with a system that actually gets energy from the body itself, you could extend that lifespan for as long as you really need.”

Although their project is still in the fundamental research phase, MacVittie says they have managed to harvest energy using their system: they have powered a sports watch using live lobsters.

“We did turn it on and it was able to run for upwards of an hour and a half before we ended up turning it off, it [the watch] didn’t even die on its own.”

How it works:

MacVittie and his colleagues are using the immobilization of enzymes on a conductive surface to activate the oxidation of glucose and the reduction of oxygen to harvest energy from the blood.

This basically means that the immobilized enzymes, large molecules in the body responsible for thousands of chemical reactions, activate a process that releases energy, something we do every day when we use food to help our bodies function.

“You need about 1.2 volts to turn on the watch", MacVittie says, "and you’re thermodynamically limited by the components of glucose and oxygen [in the lobster’s blood] to about 700 millivolts, so we had to use two lobsters wired together to get the amount necessary to turn it on.”**

He says their research is still in its early phases, but the hope is that eventually they will be able to run something like a pacemaker by just inserting a stent into the body that would carry the immobilized enzymes on the surface.

“If this were to get to the point where we really want it, the battery would become a backup. You would allow the electronics to run solely off the glucose and oxygen in your blood, which you supply by breathing and eating every day.”

The team has also designed a flow system the cycles human serum at a physiologically accurate rate, to power electrodes, in an attempt to get closer to this final goal.

MacVittie says it may sound futuristic, but it is not too far away from being a reality.

“It’s not science fiction any more to think of people as cyborgs.”

*Traditional storage systems like batteries have allowed the world to become increasingly portable, but their relatively short life-span and toxic make-up mean there are limits to their application.

From GE’s Durathon battery which uses less-toxic materials like ceramics to provide safer, more reliable energy storage; to Ithaca-based company Primet which uses nanotechnology to cut both the cost and energy usage involved in the production of battery materials.

** Editor's note: Clarkson University, like all research institutions, must adhere to strict ethical guidelines when animals are used for research purposes. For more information on the University's policy click here.

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