Researchers at Newcastle University are investigating the use of substances contained in the bloodstream as a means of producing long-life, low-power fuel cells that can be implanted into the body.
The ‘biofuel’ cells could be used in devices such as pacemakers, insulin pumps and prosthetic units. To keep up with the advances being made in medicine and the ever-increasing number of implantable devices used in operations, there is a growing need for miniature low-power sources to run the implants safely.
Chris Jones, research associate at the university, said biofuel technology is an as yet untapped market.
‘There are many benefits to using biofuel cells, particularly in surgery, one of the main being that you can introduce them into the body without having to use any toxic or foreign materials. We are using elements that are already present in the body such as glucose and oxygen.’
The research will investigate new ways of immobilising enzymes on to electrode substrates, as well as the development of fuel systems using nano-carbons and membrane-less fuel cells.
According to Dr Eileen Yu, lead researcher on the development of membrane-less fuel cells, the possibilities for the technology are significant.
‘As we are focusing on developing biofuel cells for mini and micro-scale implantable devices, a membrane-less configuration provides a more practical and simple design,’ she said.
Membrane-less systems are often more problematic, as the dissolved oxygen disrupts the fuel oxidation reaction, but the new research will develop enzymatic biofuel cells that use enzymes as the catalyst. Because enzymes are specific for certain reactions, the effect of dissolved oxygen can be minimised.
Another advantage to using membrane-less biofuel cells is cost. Membranes are an expensive material and making fuel cells without them could lower the price of a device.