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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Using blood glucose to power implants

Electricity from Blood Sugar
By Nick Flaherty

Reseachers at the Department of Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK) of the University of Freiburg are developing biological fuel cells to provide power in the human body. 
Researchers have yet to find an optimal method for supplying implantable medical microsystems with electrical energy. The batteries of a pacemaker, for instance, need to be replaced after roughly eight years - meaning a strenuous and expensive surgical intervention for the patient, or rechargeable batteries that greatly reduce the patient’s quality of life. 
The idea behind Sven Kerzenmacher’s research is to use implantable glucose fuel cells based on noble metal catalysts like platinum. Such catalysts are particularly well suited for use in implant systems due to their long-term stability and the fact that they can be sterilized. In the future, systems equipped with these fuel cells could be supplied with power by way of a continuous electrochemical reaction between glucose and oxygen from the tissue fluid.
Kerzenmacher and his team aim to apply a thin coat of the fuel cells they have developed to the surface of the implant. The advantages of this technique over existing technologies stem from the fact that the fuel cells are only half as thick while delivering a 30 percent increase in performance. Moreover, platinum electrodes are not sensitive to unwanted chemical reactions like hydrolysis and oxidation. Kerzenmacher and his research group consisting of biologists, chemists, and engineers are currently developing new materials and techniques to improve the performance of the fuel cells.
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