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Electric eel inspires new soft power source

"These hydrogels are brought into self-registered contact, producing a voltage which scales indefinitely," researchers said.

By Brooks Hays
Electric eel inspires new soft power source
Stacks of hydrogels create an ion gradient with an electric potential that can be harvested to power small devices. Photo by Anirvan Guha and Thomas Schroeder

Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Scientists aiming to create an improved power supply for implantable devices have found inspiration in the form of a slippery sea creature, the electric eel. Using the species' shock-producing biochemical system as a guide, researchers developed a device capable of yielding 110 volts.

Scientists created the device by stacking layers of hydrogels, gels filled with water. Each layer featured hydrogels with different levels of salinity, encouraging the accumulation of ions.

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The ions, or charged atoms, are attracted to each other and accumulate on either side of the cell membrane dividing the hydrogel layers. The accumulation creates an ion gradient with a significant electric potential. The potential can be harvested for electric power.

"Upon mechanical activation, these hydrogels are brought into self-registered contact, producing a voltage which scales indefinitely with the number of units stacked in series and a current which scales with the number of units in parallel," scientists explained in a new paper describing their work.

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The paper's authors, including lead researcher Anirvan Guha, graduate student at the University of Fribourg's Adolphe Merkle Institute in Switzerland, are scheduled to present their research this week at the Biophysical Society 62nd Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

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The international team of scientists created the unique hydrogel layers using 3D-printing technology.

The technology allowed the team to deposit tiny droplets of gel "with the precision and spatial resolution to print an array of almost 2,500 gels on a sheet the size of a normal piece of printer paper," Guha said in a news release.

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Through further experimentation, researchers hope to scale up the device's voltage potential.

"Right now, we're in the range of tens to hundreds of microamperes [the basic unit for measuring an electrical current], which is too low to power most electronic devices," Guha said.

The researchers also hope to develop devices that can tap into the ion gradients that naturally exist in the human body, allowing the body's biochemical systems to power small implantable devices.

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Guha's team is one of many working on efforts to design self-powered implantable devices. Last year, a group of researchers from UCLA and the University of Connecticut detailed new technology promising to capture the body's kinetic energy and convert it into usable electricity.

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