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Bio Fuel Cells - The Human Battery

Monday March 24, 2014 13:18

Endless power for portable electronic devices fueled by your own blood? It may sound like just an absurd idea but it is in fact quite real.

Substitution of precious metals is always among the first areas being looked at in competitive technical applications. Zafar Iqbal, chemistry professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and research professor Reginald Farrow had originally set off to create a downsized fuel cell for use in small electronic devices and laptop computers. Iqbal, whose career includes fuel cell research at Honeywell / GE, and Farrow, whose specialty is micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), combined their expertise to create a micro fuel cell on the centimeter scale. The devices use enzymes or a nanopolymer deposited on carbon nanotubes. No platinum or other precious metals are needed.

The combination with carbon nanotubes then lead to the creation of bio fuel cells. “This has been done on the hydrogen side before, but not on the biological side”, Iqbal comments on their development. Fuel cells can now be scaled down from centimeter sizes to millimeters.

Conceivable products are fuel cells implanted in human bodies substituting conventional batteries of pacemakers or drug delivery devices that require periodic replacement.

Iqbal conceded that they are not the only ones pursuing this goal: “Sony and a number of startups in the United States, Israel and France are working on it but there is no commercial solution. There are issues with the long-term stability of the catalyst.”

Provided that the funding required can be secured, Iqbal estimated the technology is five years away from commercialization, excluding FDA approvals.

“The product could initially be commercialized as a patch, a plastic bandage similar to a motion sickness patch”, he explained. “It will take small amounts of glucose from the wearer’s blood but no oxygen which can be obtained from the outside.”

The patch, which would be in the centimeter or even millimeter scale, could be used by first responders or the military to power on-body sensors or GPS devices.

A key question is, of course, whether or not this technology might replace platinum in hydrogen cars in the future.

However, Iqbal is pessimistic: “Bio fuel cells are no alternative to platinum in cars. They produce milliwatts of power while cars need about 65 kilowatt to operate.”

Iqbal expects a cascading effect of power distribution starting with decentralized residential fuel cells powering the house of tomorrow. The house’s power supply charges battery-electric cars and portable electronic devices as needed.

Asked about battery electric versus hydrogen electric cars Iqbal said: “Lithium ion is just doable today because the power is available in homes and everywhere else. Hydrogen has a long where to go in creating an infrastructure.” However, “lithium is an explosion hazard as we have seen on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Even the Chevrolet Volt has seen fires and minor explosions”.

“The question will come down to the cost and the economics of hydrogen fuel cells”, concluded Iqbal. “The effect of degradation of platinum catalysts in fuel cells will be felt much more than in today’s car catalysts, so there are limits as to how much platinum can be reduced”.

By Bodo Albrecht
tminsider@eniqma.com

 

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of Kitco Metals Inc. The author has made every effort to ensure accuracy of information provided; however, neither Kitco Metals Inc. nor the author can guarantee such accuracy. This article is strictly for informational purposes only. It is not a solicitation to make any exchange in precious metal products, commodities, securities or other financial instruments. Kitco Metals Inc. and the author of this article do not accept culpability for losses and/ or damages arising from the use of this publication.
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