Electric Bugs

Generating enough power for all the demands of modern society presents enough challenges to keep creative scientists thoroughly engaged and busy. For example, wouldn’t it be nice to have a tiny fuel cell that could be implanted in the body and that converted the chemical energy of sugar and oxygen into useful electricity to power micro-devices?

New research from Case Western Reserve University creates just such a device—implanted not under your skin, but in the lowly and universally unloved cockroach.

The secret lies in devising an anode that oxidizes the sugar trehalose (two glucose units linked together) and a cathode that reduces oxygen. The first step was doing the reactions in a glass cell using enzymes as a catalyst. Voila, an electrical current!

Turning next to the likely unwilling test subject (Blaberus discoidalis, the aforementioned South American cockroach), the device was implanted in the abdomen under CO2 sedation. Males were spared—their midsections are too small for easy surgery—but the females provided a roughly three-inch-long area for experimentation. During the test the insects were pinned and stapled upside down in a Petri dish and pierced with an electrode containing the necessary enzymes. Again, a useful current was produced. Also, the authors report “no long lasting deleterious effects” from the invasive procedure. One wonders how they would know for sure.

A more likeable creature—the delightfully edible Shiitake mushroom—also performed well in producing power with the same implanted biofuel cell, albeit at about tenfold less output than the insect.

This isn’t practical for any realistic use at present, but the demonstration that the internal chemicals of a living organism can be harnessed to produce electricity should at least stoke the fires for further experimentation and development into something actually useful.

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

Fuel Cell Taps into Roach Power [C&EN News]
Fuel Cells, Carbonation, and Love [Periodic Tabloid]

Posted In: Technology

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