MIT's fuel cell uses glucose to power brain implants

The ultra-low-power fuel cell converts naturally occurring glucose into usable energy--courtesy of MIT

MIT engineers have developed a hyper-efficient way to power devices implanted in the brain: a tiny fuel cell that converts naturally occurring glucose into usable electricity.

The device, discussed in the latest edition of PLoS One, is a silicon-based chip that pulls electrons from glucose molecules in cerebrospinal fluid, using its platinum catalyst to create a small electric current. It generates energy only in the hundreds of microwatts, but that's enough to power useful neural implants, the researchers said.

And the cell is safe and stable. Silicon and platinum have demonstrated strong long-term biocompatibility, unlikely provoke an adverse reaction, and the cerebrospinal fluid is loaded with glucose that doesn't get used by the body, meaning the fuel cell's impact on brain function would likely be negligible, the engineers said.

The research team, led by MIT's Rahul Sarpeshkar, developed the cell with ultra-low-power electronics in mind, targeting tiny implants that can run on small amounts of energy. 

Sarpeshkar points out that researchers are still years away from commercializing the tech, but the possible applications can be awe-inspiring. Take, for instance, Brown University's recent advance with its BrainGate implant, a pill-sized microchip that allows tetraplegics to control robotic arms.

As it stands, that device must be plugged into a wall, MIT points out. "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," said Benjamin Rapoport, an author of the fuel cell study.

- read the MIT News article
- check out the study in PLoS One