By: InnovationNewsDaily Staff
Published: 06/13/2012 12:46 PM EDT on InnovationNewsDaily
Cockroaches, snails and clams have already become living batteries as experimental cyborgs. A new MIT fuel cell could extend that futuristic idea to humans by drawing its power from the fluid surrounding the human brain.
The fuel cell can already make enough power for low-power brain implants — devices that could eventually help paralyzed patients move their legs and arms again. MIT researchers made the fuel cell out of silicon and platinum so that it can last for years with a low risk of provoking the body's immune response.
"The glucose fuel cell, when combined with such ultra-low-power electronics, can enable brain implants or other implants to be completely self-powered," said Rahul Sarpeshkar, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.
MIT's fuel cell mimics the role of the human body's enzymes by breaking down glucose sugar into energy. The glucose in the brain's cerebrospinal fluid represents a continuous fuel supply for the fuel cell — even if the fuel cell currently generates just hundreds of microwatts (one microwatt is equal to one millionth of a watt).
Scientists had already shown they could power a heart pacemaker with glucose fuel cells in the 1970s, but they gave up on the idea because such fuel cells used biological enzymes that eventually wore out. MIT's fuel cell avoids that problem by relying on nonbiological materials. [Cyborg Snail Turned into Living Battery]
"It's a proof of concept that they can generate enough power to meet the requirements," said Karim Oweiss, an associate professor of electrical engineering, computer science and neuroscience at Michigan State University.
A next step for MIT involves showing how well the fuel cell works in living animals, Oweiss said. Other researchers have already shown how small creatures such as cyborg clams and cyborg snails can refuel implanted fuel cells with their own bodies.
Sarpeshkar's MIT lab previously worked on implantable devices that bridge the gap between brain and machine — recording and decoding nerve signals, stimulating nerves, or communicating wirelessly with brain implants. But medical implants capable of harvesting energy from a person's own bodily fluids remain years away.
"It will be a few more years into the future before you see people with spinal-cord injuries receive such implantable systems in the context of standard medical care, but those are the sorts of devices you could envision powering from a glucose-based fuel cell," said Benjamin Rapoport, a former graduate student in the Sarpeshkar lab and the first author on the new MIT study.
The study is detailed in the June 12 online edition of the journal PLoS One.
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Caffeine For Imprisoned Twins
In the late 18th century, King Gustavus III of Sweden was rumored to have carried out a strange experiment to determine the harmful health effects of coffee. Two identical twins who had been condemned to death had their sentences commuted to life in prison on the condition that one would drink three pots of coffee per day, and the other three pots of tea, for the rest of their lives. The only problem was that the doctors assigned to monitor the cases died before either of the patients did, their observations lost--as the story goes, the tea drinker died first, and there's no record of the coffee-drinker's death. The experiment proved nothing, suffering from a lack of rigor (to say the least). Source: Uppsala University, "Coffee - rat poison or miracle medicine?"
Simulated Anthrax On The Subway
In June 1966, the U.S. Army's Special Operations Division secretly dispersed harmless bacteria in the New York Subway system to model the effects of an outbreak of more harmful germs. According to Army reports, "Test results show that a large portion of the working population of New York City would be exposed to disease if one or more pathogenic agents were disseminated covertly in several subway lines at a period of peak traffic." Source: Deadly Cultures: Biological Warfare Since 1945. Wheelis, Rózsa, and Dando. Harvard University Press, 2006.
Weaponized Fleas In The Desert
Operation Big Itch, 1954, was an attempt to discover the potential of weaponized fleas. The operation, part of the Cold War-era United States biological weapons program, took place at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. According to "Using the flea as weapon," an article in the Army Chemical Review, "In the United States, the plague flea concept was competing against the use of mosquitoes, flies, ticks, and lice. Of these concepts, the United States put most of its energies behind weaponizing yellow fever in combination with the Aedes aegypti mosquito."
Food Through A Hole In The Stomach
U.S. Army Surgeon William Beaumont (above) found an extraordinary patient in Alexis St. Martin, a Canadian trapper who was injured in a hunting accident and left with a hole in his belly that led directly into his stomach. Beaumont attached a string to various foods, including oysters and rare roast beef, and introduced them into the wound to observe the rates of digestion. Despite the unorthodox techniques, this research would later lead to the discovery of the importance of stomach acid in digestion, earning Beaumont the epithet "father of gastric physiology." Source: Experiments and observations on the gastric juice, and the physiology of digestion. Beaumont, Martin and Combe. Maclachlan & Stewart, 1838
Candy For Mental Patients
In 1945, Sweden's new National Dental Service commissioned research, now known as the Vipeholm experiments, in which researchers gave subjects large amounts of sticky sugary candy in order to study the development of cavities. This might not have been so controversial, except that the subjects couldn't give consent to their participation: "The use of mentally handicapped subjects was criticized in the Swedish press and all studies on mentally handicapped individuals were stopped in 1954," according to Topics In Dental Biochemistry by Mark Levine (Springer, 2010).