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Could humans be a future source of energy?

2016-10-18

RESEARCH. Research into biofuel cells has been conducted at Malmö University for a number of years. One of the members of the research team is now about to present his thesis, which elucidates how body fluids, combined with what are termed self-charging biosupercapacitors, can generate and store energy simultaneously. Dmitry Pankratov will defend his thesis on October 21, 2016. 

Dmitrii"My hope is that in the future the human body could be a potential source of energy and be sufficiently powerful to operate miniaturised electronic circuits or even portable electronic devices. The thesis also reveals something we were previously unaware of: that it is possible to generate and store energy simultaneously with the aid of biosupercapacitors. By doing so, we can save on space and simplify the design, which would facilitate miniaturisation of the energy source," said Dmitry Pankratov.

Biofuel cells are electrochemical devices that can convert chemical energy into electrical energy. They are capable, for example, of oxidising glucose and at the same time reducing molecular oxygen. The problem with biofuel cells is that they are not always sufficiently effective, which makes biosupercapacitors – nanoparticle-based hybrids of fuel cells and supercapacitors – particularly interesting as they can generate and store energy simultaneously.

Smart contact lenses

Glucose concentration, for example, could be measured continuously in tears using contact lenses with integrated sensors. A sensor of this nature could hypothetically transmit information to a mobile phone and be powered by a glucose/oxygen biofuel cell. Unfortunately, the glucose concentration in tears is insufficient to maintain this process over a long period, which makes biosupercapacitors ideal.

The volume of electrical energy that can be extracted from a biosupercapacitor could be up to 100 times greater than the energy that can be extracted from a biofuel cell. This would open up new opportunities to use miniaturised bioelectronic devices in combination with body fluids.

Dmitry Pankratov explained: "Our research team is the first to develop biosupercapacitors that can handle this type of integrated process. Being able to integrate energy generation and storage in a biodevice is a major breakthrough that will lead to synergies on many levels."

From solutions to body fluids

Dmitry Pankratov's trials have been carried out in solutions similar to blood. The next step is to test flexible biofuel cells in real body fluids, something that Dmitry is looking forward to doing in the near future.

"Later in the autumn I will take up a post-doc position at the Technical University of Denmark, where I will be involved in developing an ultra-thin, yet robust biosupercapacitor that could be used in a human blood vessel. A slightly bewildering vision of the future is that this type of unit could very well be used as a source of energy to create small, self-powered nanorobots that would be capable of killing cancer cells or delivering medication in our bloodstream," said Dmitry Pankratov.

Second PhD defence

The upcoming defence will be Dmitry Pankratov's second. The first was in inorganic chemistry in Moscow in 2011. He then decided to change direction and continued with advanced studies at the A.N. Bach Institute of Biochemistry in Moscow, focusing on enzymatic fuel cells and supercapacitors based on a variety of nanocomposites. It was through these studies that he came into contact with his current research team at Malmö University, under the leadership of Sergey Shleev, and he is now in the process of completing his PhD.

"Research in this field involves working at the interface between several disciplines, including chemistry, biology, electronics and nanotechnology. As this is a multidisciplinary field, I am in a position to draw on several areas of knowledge, which is something that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. Having said that, it also represents the greatest challenge. If we are to move forward, collaboration between completely different research fields is required and unfortunately this doesn't always attract a lot of interest. It's a pity, as this area of research is very exciting and could lead to a future that may prove highly interesting," Dmitry Pankratov concluded. 

Text: Charlotte Löndahl Bechmann

Last updated by Charlotte Löndahl Bechmann