A team of engineers from MIT has developed a new glucose fuel cell that runs on the same sugar that powers the human body. The team believes that the device will be able to “drive highly efficient brain implants” that would enable paraplegics to regain control of their limbs. The device, which is detailed in the June 12 edition of the journal PLoS ONE, strips electrons from glucose molecules in order to generate a small electric current.
Team leader Rahul Sarpeshkar, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, believes that the new glucose fuel cell could be integrated into a silicon chip for brain implants. Although the technology has been theorized and developed since the 1970s, MIT’s new fuel cell is made from silicon – which is also used in semiconductor electronic chips. The MIT fuel cell also contains no biological components, as it is made from a platinum catalyst that strips the electrons from glucose.
“It will be a few more years into the future before you see people with spinal-cord injuries receive such implantable systems in the context of standard medical care, but those are the sorts of devices you could envision powering from a glucose-based fuel cell,” says Benjamin Rapoport, an author of the new MIT study.
According to team leader Rapoport, the glucose fuel cell will be able to get all the sugar it needs from the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that surrounds the brain. CSF also contains very few cells, so the fuel cell is unlikely to provoke an immune response, and since only a small amount of glucose is utilized by the fuel cell, any impact on the brain would be tiny.
“The glucose fuel cell, when combined with such ultra-low-power electronics, can enable brain implants or other implants to be completely self-powered,” says Sarpeshkar. An example of how these fuel cells could change the world is powering the recently unveiled robotic arm for paralyzed patients from Brown University. Here’s hoping their latest breakthrough is a medical reality within the next few years.