Did you know that extra glucose from your body can now generate electricity? Sounds like science fiction, isn’t it? However, a research since 2016 supports the idea of using blood sugar as a reliable energy source for biomedical devices.

The development of an implantable fuel cell for electricity conversion

A team of researchers from ETH Zurich has made it possible to convert blood sugar into electrical energy. This research, led by Martin Fussenegger, a professor of biotechnology and bioengineering, acknowledges the fact that carbohydrate consumption in Western nations is rampant. This gave the team the idea of using excess glucose to produce electrical energy. The application is leaning towards fully functional biomedical devices without using conventional rechargeable batteries.

They have developed an implantable fuel cell that sets excess glucose into motion to generate power. The fuel cell is combined with a capsule that contains artificial beta cells. Insulin is produced during this process, which effectively lowers blood sugar levels. 

What is the fuel cell made of?

The fuel cell contains an anode, an electrode made of copper-based nanoparticles that the researchers created for this application. The anode converts glucose into gluconic acid and a proton, which generates electricity.

The fuel cell is designed to be implanted under the skin. It is wrapped in a nonwoven fabric slightly larger than a thumbnail. The fabric used is coated with alginate, an algae product approved for biomedical and biotechnology use. Using alginate helps glucose enter the fuel cell and starts the conversion of power. 

How does the fuel cell system work?

The fuel cell system is a combination of two functions, power generation and controlled insulin delivery. Besides the presence of an anode at the device’s core, the researchers also combined the fuel cell with a capsule containing artificial beta cells. These beta cells are prompted to produce and secrete insulin through electrical energy.

Once the device is implanted, the alginate absorbs bodily fluids while allowing glucose to pass through the fuel cell. As soon as the fuel cell detects excess glucose, it starts to generate electricity. After which, the generated electricity stimulates the artificial beta cells, producing and releasing insulin into the bloodstream.

Once blood sugar levels achieve a healthy range, the fuel cell stops the production of electricity and insulin.

What are some benefits of the fuel cell system?

  • Other medical devices can benefit from the generated power from excess glucose. These devices include insulin pumps and pacemakers.
  • The power generated from the implanted system can communicate with external devices, such as smartphones. This allows users to adjust their system. Doctors can also access the system remotely if adjustments are necessary.
  • The fuel cell system promotes controlled insulin delivery, a necessary step to ensure proper dosage administration.

What’s in store for fuel cells in the market?

Besides the need for more resources and money, the team’s prototype is the only existing fuel cell system available today. Although this prototype has made breakthroughs in mice tests, the road to making the device market worthy can be a long and challenging process.

Today, researchers need financial support and human resources to develop the system into a marketable product. They are looking for an industry partner to help them continue their research. If this innovation materializes, millions of lives will change for the better.