The biofuel cell – breathing new life into portable electronics?

Kulveer Singh | 16th August 2016

Biofuel cells are energy devices that generate electricity from chemical reactions, and have the potential to power a whole range of portable electronics and devices. These devices work like batteries – generating an electric current. However, unlike batteries, fuel cells don't need to be recharged or replaced. All they need is fuel, and typically these fuels are hydrogen and oxygen.

Associate Medical Copywriter Kulveer Singh explains how these innovative technologies work, why they are an exciting alternative to normal battery power, and what the challenges are in implementing their use.

Enzymes in action

The real cutting-edge innovation is in how biofuel cells employ enzymes to catalyse the energy-generating chemical reactions associated with these fuels. This not only creates a highly green technology that can be recycled, but provides a cheaper setup than the traditional metal-based (and highly expensive) catalysts used in standard fuel cell systems.

These enzymatic biofuel cells (EBF) offer a clean and highly efficient way of directly converting chemical energy stored in fuels into electrical energy, creating a continuous flow of electricity.

Miniaturisation – the possibilities!

The possible applications of EBFs cover low-power portable devices such as power banks, wristwatches, and calculators; their use as a battery for implantable devices is the ultimate aim, and of course, due to the size and nature of these enzymes, miniaturisation has become a real possibility. Therefore, the most obvious target for biofuel cells research is for in vivo applications where the fuel can be extracted from physiological fluids, providing a long-term power supply for devices such as pacemakers, diabetic glucose sensors and even hearing devices and bladder-control valves.

Over the last decade, there have been a multitude of EBFs being implanted and operating in different living organisms:

What are the hurdles?

These biodevices are perfectly designed, not just for biomedical applications like biosensors and drug delivery systems, but for more commercial devices where rechargeable portable power sources are needed, such as glucose biosensors and cardiac pacemakers.

However, enzyme biocatalysts have some disadvantages compared to metal catalysts. Enzymes tend to exhibit their superior fuel-specific properties exclusively in their natural environment, so replicating this can be tricky. Establishing efficient electrical communication between anode/cathode surface and enzyme (see figure) can also be difficult, leading to inefficient transfer of electrical current through a fuel cell; limited power means your device won’t last long!

Despite these drawbacks, EBFs are an attractive alternative to generating renewable electricity, and there is huge promise for EBFs as they can operate under environmentally benign conditions, meaning they are a naturally greener alternative to existing fuel cells. Enzymatic biofuel cells remain an intriguing piece of technology, and although state-of-the-art EBFs are almost exclusively in a proof-of-concept stage, once the technology is mature, new potential applications, extending beyond low power devices will be uncovered.

What this means to healthcare

The introduction of biofuel cells can help spark a generation of effective, targeted, implantable machinery designed to tackle chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. GlaxoSmithKline and Verily recently joined forces to investigate how miniature implantable devices can be used to modify nerve signals in the brain.

This brand of technology would truly clear the path for a new wave of biomedicine to be incorporated into medical practice, and it would completely reshape and reposition how we think of biotechnology and its impact on health.

Big Pharma now has to think of ways to integrate green technologies like biofuel cells into these implantable organic devices, and devise new and competitive ways to establish market superiority in the face of an evolving, technology-driven society.

 

For more on implantable biofuel cells:

 

Download Perspective magazine issue 1 for more on healthcare trends.

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