Microbial Fuel Cell Powers Ingestible Devices

Researchers at Binghamton University have developed a tiny fuel cell that can power edible devices, like cameras, that can detect health problems in the gastrointestinal tract, and specifically inside the small intestine. A fuel cell contains a dormant Bacillus subtilis endospores only burst and become active when they come into contact with nutrient-rich intestinal fluids. Another functional test is a pH-sensitive membrane that only allows the fuel cell to function when it reaches the medium pH of the small intestine. The technology may provide an alternative to conventional batteries that can be life-threatening if they start leaking or damage the body.

How can we monitor the intestines? Another option is an edible camera in the form of a pill that once swallowed will pass through the intestinal tract and provide valuable images of those hard-to-reach areas. While this solution is great, finding a way to reliably and safely power up the device can be tricky. Conventional batteries can be a security risk, and if the device is intended to remain in the GI tract for a short period of time they may run out of power. Another option is to use nutrient-rich fluids in the gut to power a so-called biobattery.

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“There are certain regions in the small intestine that are not accessible, which is why enteric cameras have been developed to solve this problem,” said Seokheun “Sean” Choi, one of the leading developers of the new biobattery. “They can do many things, such as taking pictures and sensing the body, even delivering drugs. The problem is power. Until now, electronic devices use basic batteries that have a limited energy budget and cannot operate for long periods of time.”

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In this new paradigm, nutrient-rich intestinal fluid enters the biobattery, and the bacteria inside begin to feed on it, generating small amounts of electricity in the process. So far, the technology is still in the concept stage, and the researchers tested it by immersing the biobattery in simulated intestinal fluid, and showed that the battery can produce a current density of 470 µA cm.-2 and a power density of 98 µW cm-2suggesting it has the potential to power portable devices.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done before the technology is suitable for testing in humans. Researchers are working to improve the amount of electricity the system can produce so they can equip biobattery-powered devices with more advanced features. They have already ingeniously developed a system specific to the small intestine using pH sensitive substances.

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“How do you make your micro-fuel cell work selectively in the small intestine? We use a pH-sensitive membrane that requires certain conditions to work,” said Choi. “If you look at our gastrointestinal tract, the esophagus has a neutral pH, similar to the small intestine, but the transit time is only 10 seconds. It will not work in this environment, and it will never work in the stomach because the stomach has a very low pH. It only works in the small intestine. “

Read on Advanced Energy Materials: A Biobattery Capsule for Edible Electronics in the Small Intestine: Biopower Production from Intestinal Fluid Activated by Germination of Exoelectrogenic Bacterial Endospores

By: Binghamton University


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