It’s in the Blood

Fact: Fuel cells can turn glucose in your blood into electricity.

The biggest barrier to portable technology is the need to constantly recharge it. But in the future you might be plugging your phone into a different power supply at night – you.

Canadian scientists have created a tiny fuel cell packed with yeast cells. These yeast cells steal the glucose from your blood (which comes from the food we eat) and use it to provide the energy they need to live and grow. Think of it as a tiny, man-made, blood-sucking parasite.

It might not sound appealing, but theres a catch: when the yeast breaks down glucose to produce energy, the fuel cells steal some of the electrons that are released and converts them into electricity, rather than into energy for the yeast cells. This little hack allows the yeast enough energy to keep themselves alive but channels the rest into more important activities like watching Netflix.

At the moment they don’t make much power, but once we’ve developed these chips into a reliable power supply it’s a relatively small step to develop electronic implants that could run off that power. Soon humans might come with built-in mobile phones, USB charging ports or (more seriously) pacemakers and other medical implants that don’t rely on batteries. The age of the cyborgs has begun.

However, there’s still the problem of waste products. In the process of breaking down glucose yeast produces ethanol, which is why we use “brewers’ yeast” to make the alcohol in beer and spirits. However, this alcohol must be removed from the fuel cell as if it builds up it will kill the yeast cells. Some people might see a constant free supply of alcohol leaching directly into their bloodstream as a bonus, but on balance it would probably be better if everyone in the future wasn’t constantly moderately pissed.

‘Another one of Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science’
Image under Creative Commons license

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