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In-body electric eel tech to make 'leccy from body fat

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US scientists believe it could be possible to use artificial electric eel cells grafted into the human body to generate power for cybernetic implant devices. The pseudo-electrocytes would harvest the necessary energy from body fats and sugars.

Engineer David LaVan of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) co-authored the new research with Jian Xu of Yale Uni.

“Do we understand how a cell produces electricity well enough to design one—and to optimize that design?” asks LaVan - and his answer appears to be yes.

It seems that electric eels use thousands of specialised cells - electrocytes - to turn a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) into electrical potentials of up to 600 volts. The ATP is synthesized from fats and sugars present in the body. The electrocytes are simply a differently-specialised variant on normal nerve cells, optimised for higher power on a slower cycle rather than rapid low-power pulses.

LaVan and Xu, having done detailed modelling, believe that improved, artificial electrocytes suitable for implanting in humans could be produced. They think that a 4mm cube of stacked pseudo-cells could offer continuous power output of 300 microwatts, offering the potential to sustain small medical devices.

The necessary ATP, according to the two researchers, would be produced from fats and sugars present in the body "using tailored bacteria or mitochondria".

There are obvious implicit possibilities for implanted electroshock weaponry, body-powered smartphones etc, assuming the tech scales up - but that's the least of it. There would also be (cough) enormous potential in other areas such as slimming.

People might even be able to earn a little money from their internal electrocyte powerpacks in the proposed "smart grid" future, by plugging themselves into the wall overnight and selling their cellulite to the power company*.

Insert your Matrix references in the comments section by all means. The paper in question is: J. Xu and D.A. LaVan, Designing artificial cells to harness the biological ion concentration gradient. Nature Nanotechnology, published online: September 21, 2008. ®

Bootnote

*Only kidding. Fit humans do well to push out sustained power of 100 or 150 watts - equivalent to one bright filament lightbulb - during hard athletic endeavour. Even if the eel-implant tech works, it seems unlikely that you'd ever make much of a dent in your electricity bill by such means. You'd be looking at 1p/hour plugged in at the outside.

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