Tiny “droplet battery” could revolutionize bio-gadgets

Magnified version of the droplet energy source for visualization. Droplets with a volume of 500 nL were encapsulated in a flexible and compressible organogel. Photo credit: Yujia Zhang.

Have you ever wondered how small devices that interact with human cells get their energy?

Researchers at Oxford University have made a major breakthrough that could transform the world of medical devices.

Biodevices, small tools that can work with the cells of our body, can be very helpful.

They could be used to deliver medicines directly to where they are needed or to heal wounds faster.

But there’s a problem: These tiny tools need power, and so far we haven’t had a good way to give them the power they need.

Inspired by electric eels, which generate electricity through internal chemical reactions, Oxford researchers have come up with a creative solution.

They have developed a tiny battery called the “droplet battery”. Unlike conventional batteries, this one is soft and uses the movement of ions (tiny charged particles) to generate electricity.

To make this battery, they lined up five small drops of a gel-like substance (called a conductive hydrogel).

Each drop contains a different amount of salt, creating a “salt gradient.” This means there is more salt at the ends and less in the middle. They then erect barriers between these drops to separate them from each other.

To activate this battery, they cool it and change its environment, causing these individual drops to become a connected gel.

The ions move from the saltier ends to the middle. By attaching wires to the ends, they can capture the energy that creates this movement and use it to power other things.

The best part? This tiny battery can power you for just over 30 minutes! And even if you keep it for a day and a half, it still works almost as well as before.

To prove how it could work with cells, they connected the battery to some special human nerve cells.

These cells were marked with a fluorescent dye to indicate when they were active. When they turned on the battery, the cells began communicating with each other, demonstrating the battery’s potential for interacting with living tissue.

dr Yujia Zhang, the project’s lead scientist, is excited about the possibilities. Thanks to modern technologies such as droplet 3D printers, they were able to create synthetic fabrics with special abilities.

With this new battery, they can make even more progress. They even showed that by connecting many of these batteries together, you could power a small lamp!

Thinking ahead, these batteries could be used in wearable devices, special medical implants, and even tiny robots that work inside our bodies. Imagine if you had a wearable device powered by this innovative battery, or a tiny robot that could repair tissue from the inside!

Professor Hagan Bayley, who led the research team, sees great potential in this discovery. “This battery could change the way we think about combining technology and biology,” he says.

This study laid the groundwork for what could be the next big thing in medical technology.

In simpler terms, our body cells may soon have tiny, soft, and efficient batteries that can help them communicate better and maybe even heal us faster.

This cool invention simply shows how nature (like electric eels) can inspire breakthrough discoveries!

Note: For those interested in the science behind cell communication, it occurs via a process called calcium signaling. It’s like the body’s own version of Morse code for cells.

The study “A Microscale Soft Ionic Power Source Modulates Neuronal Network Activity” was published in Nature.

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Source: University of Oxford.

Laura Coffey

Laura Coffey is a Worldtimetodays U.S. News Reporter based in Canada. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Laura Coffey joined Worldtimetodays in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: LauraCoffey@worldtimetodays.com.

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