Eel-Like Electric Cells Could Power Medical and Nanotech Devices
We may not be talking megawatts (let alone watts) of potential energy here, but a new artificial cell created by researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Yale University could be used to power the next generation of medical and nano-based devices. In a paper published in the latest issue of Nature Nanotechnology, the engineers describe a type of cell that would not only mimic the electrical behavior of electrical eel cells, but actually improve on them -- by making them more powerful and efficient.
Eels are able to produce potentials of up to 600 volts by combining the output of several thousands of specialized cells known as electrocytes. These cells resemble nerve cells in the way they function: They transmit an electric pulse through the cell by moving sodium and potassium ions into and out of highly selective channels along the membrane, producing an ionic gradient.
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Electric cells would work like juiced nerve cells
Though still relatively weak, electrocytes can deliver more power than nerve cells over longer periods of time. According to David LaVan and Jian Xu, of NIST and Yale, respectively, it should be possible to improve the cells' power output by tweaking a few variables, including the types of channels in the membrane and their density. By playing around a bit, they were able to obtain one model for an artificial cell that prorduced over 40 percent more energy in a single pulse than a conventional electrocyte.
Cells could find application in medicine and nanotechnology
In another case, they created a cell that could generate peak power outputs that were over 28 percent higher. A cube a little over 4 millimeters on a side, made up entirely of stacked layers of these cells, could generate a continuous output of 300 microwatts, which, while small, would be enough to power a variety of medical implant devices -- and, possibly, a number of nano-based devices.
The cells' main energy source would be adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body's basic unit of energy, which is obtained by breaking down sugars and fats. LaVan and Xu say that specially tailored bacteria or mitochondria could be used to process the sugars necessary to run the devices (though I imagine that could be subject to change, depending on their specific application).
Granted, it would be a limited application (you won't ever see these cells competing at the level of solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy), but, since nanotechnology is likely to become a more integral part of our daily lives in the near future, this type of artificial electric cell could find use in many devices.
Many may (understandably) still be wary of nanotechnology because of its potential health and environmental risks, but the fact of the matter is that it is already being used in everything from water purification and solar power to bioremediation and energy storage.
If anything else, this cell is just another notable example of the growing influence of biomimicry in science and technology.