This new piece of MIT technology uses sugars from the human body to create energy


The glucose fuel cell is 1/100th the diameter of a single human hair and could power miniature implants in the human body.

Caption: Silicon chip containing 30 individual glucose micro-fuel cells, visible as small silver squares in each gray rectangle. Kent Dayton

What if there was ultra-thin technology powered by sugar from the human body?

Researchers from MIT and the Technical University of Munich are answering this question with a new piece of mini technology – a tiny but powerful fuel cell.

This new and improved glucose fuel cell takes glucose ingested from food in the human body and converts it to electricity, according to MIT News. This electricity could power small implants while withstanding up to 600 degrees Celsius — or 1112 degrees Fahrenheit — and being just 400 nanometers thick.

400 nanometers is about 1/100th the diameter of a single human hair.

Custom experimental setup to characterize 30 glucose fuel cells in rapid succession. Kent Dayton

The device itself is made of ceramic, which allows it to be made in such a tiny size and withstand ultra-hot temperatures.

With such a thin piece of technology, it could be wrapped around implants to power them while harnessing the glucose present in the body.

“Glucose is everywhere in the body and the idea is to harvest this readily available energy and use it to power implantable devices. In our work, we show a new glucose fuel cell electrochemistry,” says Philipp Simons, who developed the design as part of his doctoral thesis.

Jennifer LM Rupp, Simons’ PhD supervisor, said that while a battery can take up 90% of the volume of an implant, this technology would be a power source with no “volumetric footprint”.

Rupp got the idea for the fuel cell after having a blood sugar test towards the end of her pregnancy.

“In the doctor’s office, I was a very bored electrochemist, thinking about what to do with sugar and electrochemistry. Then I realized it would be good to have a glucose powered solid state device. And Philipp and I met over coffee and wrote the first drawings on a serviette,” she says.

The “simple” glucose fuel cell consists of an upper anode, a middle electrolyte and a lower cathode. The MIT team specifically looked at the middle electrolyte layer to improve existing models of the device.

The middle layer is usually made of polymers that can decompose at high temperatures, making it difficult to use for implants that have to undergo an extremely hot sterilization process. Polymers are difficult to process, even on a miniature scale.

That’s when researchers began to turn their attention to ceramics as their preeminent material.

“If you think of ceramics for such a glucose fuel cell, they have the advantage of long-term stability, low scalability and silicon chip integration. They are hard and robust,” says Rupp.

The specific ceramic material used is called cerium oxide.

“Ceria is actively studied in cancer research. It’s also similar to zirconia, which is used in dental implants, and is biocompatible and safe,” Simons said.

The researchers “opened a new route to miniature current sources for implanted sensors and potentially other functions,” says Truls Norby, professor of chemistry at the University of Oslo in Norway. “The ceramics used are non-toxic, cheap and, last but not least, inert both to the conditions in the body and to sterilization conditions before implantation. The concept and demonstration so far is indeed promising.” This new piece of MIT technology uses sugars from the human body to create energy

Rick Schindler

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