Engineers at MIT and the Technical University of Munich have designed a new type of glucose fuel cell that measures just 400 nanometres thick– this means it is thinner than a sheet of paper that is about 100,000 nanometres thick.
The researchers envision that this cell could be used to power medical implants and sensors in the human body, without batteries or other energy storage devices.
The team behind the fuel cell has authored a research article titled, “A Ceramic-Electrolyte Glucose Fuel Cell for Implantable Electronics,” published in Advanced Materials. Co-authors of the paper include Philipp Simons, Steven A. Schenk, Marco A. Gysel, Lorenz F. Olbrich, and Jennifer L. M. Rupp.
The fuel cell can use glucose to generate about 80 milliwatts of electricity per square centimeter, which the researchers claim is the highest power density of any glucose fuel cell to date. Apart from its size and efficiency, the new device is also durable. It can reportedly withstand temperatures up to 600 degrees Celsius.
The idea for the device occurred to thesis supervisor and corresponding author Jennifer L M Rupp when she was in the doctor’s office pregnant with her second child, getting a diabetes test. According to Rupp, she was a “bored electrochemist,” wondering what could be done with blood sugar in the human body.
According to the research article, power requirements for implantable sensor-like devices typically vary from 100 nW to 1mW, which means such fuel cells can potentially power them. But for more power-hungry devices like pacemakers, there might be a requirement for multiple fuel cells to be implanted to generate enough power.