15 May 2017
Researchers from UCLA and the University of Connecticut have designed a new biofriendly energy storage system called a biological supercapacitor, which operates using charged particles, or ions, from fluids in the human body. The device is harmless to the body’s biological systems, and it could lead to longer-lasting cardiac pacemakers and other implantable medical devices. The UCLA team was led by Richard Kaner, a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering, and the Connecticut researchers were led by James Rusling, a professor of chemistry and cell biology.
A paper about their design was published this week in the journal Advanced Energy Materials. Pacemakers — which help regulate abnormal heart rhythms — and other implantable devices have saved countless lives. But they’re powered by traditional batteries that eventually run out of power and must be replaced, meaning another painful surgery and the accompanying risk of infection. In addition, batteries contain toxic materials that could endanger the patient if they leak.
The researchers propose storing energy in those devices without a battery. The supercapacitor they invented charges using electrolytes from biological fluids like blood serum and urine, and it would work with another device called an energy harvester, which converts heat and motion from the human body into electricity — in much the same way that self-winding watches are powered by the wearer’s body movements. That electricity is then captured by the supercapacitor. “Combining energy harvesters with supercapacitors can provide endless power for lifelong implantable devices that may never need to be replaced,” said Maher El-Kady, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher and a co-author of the study.
Modern pacemakers are typically about 6 to 8 millimeters thick, and about the same diameter as a 50-cent coin; about half of that space is usually occupied by the battery. The new supercapacitor is only 1 micrometer thick — much smaller than the thickness of a human hair — meaning that it could improve implantable devices’ energy efficiency. It also can maintain its performance for a long time, bend and twist inside the body without any mechanical damage, and store more charge than the energy lithium film batteries of comparable size that are currently used in pacemakers. “Unlike batteries that use chemical reactions that involve toxic chemicals and electrolytes to store energy, this new class of biosupercapacitors stores energy by utilizing readily available ions, or charged molecules, from the blood serum,” said Islam Mosa, a Connecticut graduate student and first author of the study.
The new biosupercapacitor comprises a carbon nanomaterial called graphene layered with modified human proteins as an electrode, a conductor through which electricity from the energy harvester can enter or leave. The new platform could eventually also be used to develop next-generation implantable devices to speed up bone growth, promote healing or stimulate the brain, Kaner said.
Although supercapacitors have not yet been widely used in medical devices, the study shows that they may be viable for that purpose. “In order to be effective, battery-free pacemakers must have supercapacitors that can capture, store and transport energy, and commercial supercapacitors are too slow to make it work,” El-Kady said. “Our research focused on custom-designing our supercapacitor to capture energy effectively, and finding a way to make it compatible with the human body.” Among the paper’s other authors are the University of Connecticut’s Challa Kumar, Ashis Basu and Karteek Kadimisetty. The research was supported by the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and a National Science Foundation EAGER grant. Source and top image: UCLA Engineering
The materials in most of today’s residential rooftop solar panels can store energy from the sun for only a few microseconds at a time. A new technology developed by chemists at UCLA is capable of storing solar energy for up to several weeks—an advance that could change the way scientists think about designing solar cells.
The findings are published June 19 in the journal Science.
The new design is inspired by the way that plants generate energy through photosynthesis.
“Biology does a very good job of creating energy from sunlight,” said Sarah Tolbert, a UCLA professor of chemistry and one of the senior authors of the research. “Plants do this through photosynthesis with extremely high efficiency.”
“In photosynthesis, plants that are exposed to sunlight use carefully organized nanoscale structures within their cells to rapidly separate charges—pulling electrons away from the positively charged molecule that is left behind, and keeping positive and negative charges separated,” Tolbert said. “That separation is the key to making the process so efficient.”
The scientists devised a new arrangement of solar cell ingredients, with bundles of polymer donors (green rods) and neatly organized fullerene acceptors (purple, tan). Credit: UCLA Chemistry
To capture energy from sunlight, conventional rooftop solar cells use silicon, a fairly expensive material. There is currently a big push to make lower-cost solar cells using plastics, rather than silicon, but today’s plastic solar cells are relatively inefficient, in large part because the separated positive and negative electric charges often recombine before they can become electrical energy.
“Modern plastic solar cells don’t have well-defined structures like plants do because we never knew how to make them before,” Tolbert said. “But this new system pulls charges apart and keeps them separated for days, or even weeks. Once you make the right structure, you can vastly improve the retention of energy.”
The two components that make the UCLA-developed system work are a polymer donor and a nano-scale fullerene acceptor. The polymer donor absorbs sunlight and passes electrons to the fullerene acceptor; the process generates electrical energy.
The plastic materials, called organic photovoltaics, are typically organized like a plate of cooked pasta—a disorganized mass of long, skinny polymer “spaghetti” with random fullerene “meatballs.” But this arrangement makes it difficult to get current out of the cell because the electrons sometimes hop back to the polymer spaghetti and are lost.
The UCLA technology arranges the elements more neatly—like small bundles of uncooked spaghetti with precisely placed meatballs. Some fullerene meatballs are designed to sit inside the spaghetti bundles, but others are forced to stay on the outside. The fullerenes inside the structure take electrons from the polymers and toss them to the outside fullerene, which can effectively keep the electrons away from the polymer for weeks.
“When the charges never come back together, the system works far better,” said Benjamin Schwartz, a UCLA professor of chemistry and another senior co-author. “This is the first time this has been shown using modern synthetic organic photovoltaic materials.”
In the new system, the materials self-assemble just by being placed in close proximity.
“We worked really hard to design something so we don’t have to work very hard,” Tolbert said.
The new design is also more environmentally friendly than current technology, because the materials can assemble in water instead of more toxic organic solutions that are widely used today.
“Once you make the materials, you can dump them into water and they assemble into the appropriate structure because of the way the materials are designed,” Schwartz said. “So there’s no additional work.”
The researchers are already working on how to incorporate the technology into actual solar cells.
Yves Rubin, a UCLA professor of chemistry and another senior co-author of the study, led the team that created the uniquely designed molecules. “We don’t have these materials in a real device yet; this is all in solution,” he said. “When we can put them together and make a closed circuit, then we will really be somewhere.”
Explore further: Improving the efficiency of solar energy cells
More information: Long-lived photoinduced polaron formation in conjugated polyelectrolyte-fullerene assemblies Science 19 June 2015: Vol. 348 no. 6241 pp. 1340-1343. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa6850