Scientists are always on the lookout for safer, more natural ways to power devices that go into our bodies. After all, who really needs toxic battery elements and replacement surgery? One organism that is pretty good at generating biocompatible power (for itself, at least) is the electric eel, and scientists have now used the high-voltage species as a blueprint for a promising new self-charging device that could one day power things like pacemakers, prosthetics and even augmented reality contact lenses.
Electric eels generate voltage through long stacks of thin cells that run end-on-end through their bodies. Called electrocytes, these cells create electricity by allowing sodium ions to rush into one end and potassium ions out the other, all at the same time. The voltage created by each cell is small, but together, the stacks within a single eel can generate as many as 600 V.
To recreate this effect, researchers from the University of Fribourg, the University of Michigan and the University of California San Diego turned to the difference in salinity between fresh and saltwater. They deposited hydrogel, ion-conducting blobs onto clear plastic sheets and separated them with ion-selective membranes.
Hundreds of blobs containing salt and freshwater were arranged in an alternating pattern. When the team had all these gel compartments make contact with one another, they were able to generate 100 V through what is known as reverse electrodialysis, where energy is generated through differing salt concentrations in the water.
While the eel triggers the simultaneous contact of its electrocytes using a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine as the command signal, the team achieved this by carefully working a special origami pattern – called a Miura-ori fold – into the plastic sheet. This meant that when pressure was applied to the sheet, it quickly snapped together and the cells shifted into exactly the right positions to create the electricity.
The device, which the team calls an artificial electric organ, isn't in the same ball park as an eel in terms of output, but the researchers do have some ideas around how to boost its efficiency. It points to the metabolic energy created by ion differences in the eel's stomach, or the mechanical muscle energy, as some of the possibilities, but does note that recreating these would be a major challenge.
"The electric organs in eels are incredibly sophisticated, they're far better at generating power than we are," Mayer said. "But the important thing for us was to replicate the basics of what's happening."
The research was published in the journal Nature. You can hear from Mayer in the video below.
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