The prototype fuel cell is wrapped in a fleece and is slightly larger than a thumbnail. (Photograph: Fussenegger Lab / ETH Zurich)
Today, we're exploring a groundbreaking innovation from ETH Zurich that could revolutionize how we power wearable devices. It's time to say goodbye to conventional batteries and hello to a sustainable, continuous, and convenient power source.
(3:00) - Generating power with blood sugar
This episode was brought to you by Mouser, our favorite place to get electronics parts for any project, whether it be a hobby at home or a prototype for work. Click HERE to learn about the future of medical care with next-gen devices & technology.
What's poppin folks, welcome back to The NextByte Podcast. And in this one, we're going to be talking about diabetes specifically, how some very, very talented folks at ETH Zurich have come up with an interesting solution to use glucose that is causing problems to actually power the device that's saving lives. So, if that's got you curious, if that's got you interested then buckle up and let's get into it.
I'm Daniel, and I'm Farbod. And this is the NextByte Podcast. Every week, we explore interesting and impactful tech and engineering content from Wevolver.com and deliver it to you in bite sized episodes that are easy to understand, regardless of your background.
Farbod: All right, folks, as you heard, we're going to be talking about wearables in medical tech. But before we do that, I want to talk about today sponsor and that's Mouser Electronics. Now, you guys know, we're a big fan of Mouser. We've talked about Mouser quite a lot at this point, if you're a fan, you know, that. But a quick recap, Mouser Electronics is one of the world's biggest electronic distributors, right? So, that means they work with a lot of partners that have insights into what's going on in industry, but also Academia. Now because they have that relationship and they collaborate in that way. They also produce these pieces of Technical Resources, that are actually a pretty great spot to like, read up on some of the things that you might be interested in ranging from AI to IoT to Smart cards.
Daniel: Well, they say, it's not what you know, it's who, you know, and Mouser, they know the what in the who they're just, they're not going out of the park on both fronts.
Farbod: Yeah. So, you can go to the source and read about all the cool things that are happening. Now, one of the articles they had was about medical care for a new world. They're talking about how Medical Care is so important. We need it in all of our lives and our population is growing, people's medical needs are growing. How do we make sure that we can still provide as well as we can? Given the limited number of resources, medical resources that we have and the costs going up and then they talk about. Well now we have a lot of wearables that we didn't have, let's say, 10, 20 years ago. They give us a lot of insight about our health and you know that Dan and I, if you're again fan of podcast, we love wearables. We always talk about Apple watches with straps. I'm rocking one right now. It's great because you get so much insight about your health and they're talking about how this data can now be leveraged in this new world to tell and communicate with your doctor. Give them all this info that you've been capturing for months or years or whatever and they can process it and give you feedback much quicker. And that means Healthcare is now going to be more accessible. It's going to be more affordable and probably more accurate than it has ever been. So, it's a pretty cool article. We're going to link it in our show notes as always, if you're interested in the biotechnology realm and the medical realm and IoT, you should definitely check this out. I definitely enjoyed reading it and it was a great primer for today's article because we're going to be talking about embedded medical hardware. And in terms of embedded, I'm not talking about where the code is, I'm talking about where it's going to be on the person
Daniel: Embedded in your body, embedded with your body.
Farbod: So, let's get into it. This article is coming out of ETH Zurich and it's all about diabetes. Now, I've always heard about diabetes. I never knew the difference between type 1 and type 2, but type 1, that's the one that would be talking about. It means your body does not make insulin to regulate your blood sugar, right? So, you need some sort of exterior, insulin pump to help you do that. If I'm not mistaken, your pancreas has these things called beta cells. Those beta cells whenever there's a spike in your blood sugar, they release insulin to you know mitigate any negative consequences from that when that's not there. You need this external pump and this external pump is like I've seen I've had some friends that have type 1 diabetes. You can usually see them wearing it on their arm like a patch. It's battery-powered, it's monitoring your glucose levels and injecting insulin at the appropriate times and that's fine. But this researcher had a very interesting idea, and the idea was well, Western diet especially is very rich in carbohydrates, and that's not a wrong assumption at all, given that pretty much everything we consume has grains Incorporated in it at some level, like, to my, to our fellow American listeners. Look in the back of anything you buy from the grocery store. It has some corn byproducts in it. Like, there's no way it doesn’t, right? Yeah, that that that's just the norm. And the idea was well what if we could now that your body is obviously going to have glucose from all these carbohydrates that you're consuming? What if we could use that as the fuel source for the thing that is generating and moderating your glucose levels via insulin?
Daniel: Well, just a second, right? Just to zoom out right, glucose and sugar in general. Carbohydrates in general those are a fuel source for the body. So that's how your body generates and utilizes a lot of the energy from the food that you consume if we think about current wearable electronic devices including your Apple watch. But also, these ones you're talking about that are embedded like insulin pumps or pacemakers those rely on conventional batteries, right? You've got to replace the batteries or charge them. We need a sustainable continuous convenient power source for these wearable devices. Especially for these medical applications. And we've got this ever-flowing coursing through our veins energy source.
Farbod: Infinite energy source.
Daniel: So, this team for me ETH Zurich says people eat way too much glucose. Why can't we use this excess metabolic energy to produce electricity to help power these biomedical devices? So instead of having to change the battery or charge the battery, we're able to Capitalize on the chemical energy that's stored inside this glucose. That's already flowing around in people's veins as a way of powering these devices. In a way, that doesn't involve any plugging yourself into charge something or taking the device out to change the battery.
Farbod: Look like Iron Man is my favorite superhero of all time and you know in the comics he comes up with The Arc Reactor which is this source of infinite energy. Well in the terms of what we're going to be talking about today, the Arc Reactor that the source of that energy is very synonymous to the glucose in your body because do. you,
Daniel: Dude, I got no problem eating more glucose. I'll tell you what. The problem is the opposite.
Farbod: You and I, we have a sweet tooth. We know we do; we can't stop eating sweets. So, I feel you there, man. And what I like about this technology is that, these insulin pumps are pretty much life-saving devices, right? But they're battery-powered, and, that's not ideal. So, what if you had yourself that this device that can save your life. Be also self-regulating with you, right like basically functioning as a part of your own body as your pancreas. And that's, I mean, I've kind of talked around the topic so much, but that's what we're gonna get into. So, what is this system that they've decided to develop? All right, well we've talked about the glucose being the power, the fuel for what's going to happen here. But how does that actually work? This is a multi-part sauce, it has layers to it, right? So let's get into layer one, at it's very core you have these synthetic beta cells that I believe the same group developed as a part of another research. Now I mentioned it earlier beta cells are found in your pancreas. They are what produces that insulin. So, if you don't have it, you're not going to be able to get that insulin. Now, these folks were able to develop synthetic beta cells that can generate insulin by electric charge by having electric charge administered to them or by being activated with a, I think a blue LED, right?
Daniel: So, they've basically got, you know, this thing that doesn't work well in people who have type 1 diabetes, is these beta cells that help produce insulin in response to glucose. They've got these artificial beta cells that produce insulin in response to electricity or light. So, it's not directly responding to glucose but we do have a very strong stimulus that we can control the amount of insulin and regulate the amount of insulin in the body. So, what do we need to activate these beta cells? Its electricity, right? And I think that brings us to the second part of this secret sauce here, which is the fuel cell electrode, or they called it the metabolic biofuel cell, which I really liked the first word, their metabolic because it pays homage to the fact that this is using glucose that's in the bloodstream. Very similarly to the way that your own metabolism does when you're producing energy for your own body. So, this metabolic biofuel cell as an anode that's made of copper-based nanoparticles and that helps split glucose into one gluconic acid and then to a proton to help generate electricity. Mmm, that's encased in this nonwoven fabric coated with this medically approved bio safe natural alginate material and implanted underneath the skin and basically outside of the body, you've got the remaining electrical hardware that allows the electricity to pass from the anode to the cathode
Farbod: Right, now I want to talk about, I think you kind of glanced over it, but the third part of this sauce, the not so, you know, cool part of it is that alginate layer that surround the nonwoven fabric. Now, this alginate is biocompatible. We've talked about it before as the name implies, it's derived from algae. But what's cool about it is that it absorbs, the bodily fluids. So, this is embedded into your body the thing can absorb your body fluids and it can help. And it basically allows the glucose to pass through the membranes, it can actually reach the electrode to allow that process to happen where you get gluconic acid and your proton to get the stream of electricity, right? Now, putting all those three things together. You have a fuel cell, you have something where glucose can flow into it. Electricity's starts being generated and the electricity can then be used to stimulate those synthetic beta cells so that you can get insulin pumping. What's interesting to me about it is that when you look at the flow, right? Let's say you consume something and it's spikes your glucose levels now that it has spiked it is going to cause all this fuel cell to go into motion. So, it's going to start telling the “hey synthetic beta cells, start generating insulin”, that insulin is going to start countering that glucose is going to stabilize it and eventually get it to the point where the level isn't so high anymore. The fuel cell can run there for shutting it off and then no more insulin is produced. So, you have this self-regulating system in your body that generates insulin just as your pancreas would. So, you're mimicking, your it that's perfect and biomimicry, right? You're mimicking a natural system through this artificial pump.
Daniel: Yeah, I think it's incredible and basically what they've made here, right? Is this implantable inside the body, self-powering, insulin pump, as opposed to walking around with it, you know, slapped on your shoulder, like you're saying in a patch and you've got to replace the batteries frequently. Or if the batteries go out, you don't know what to do, right? You don't know how to get more insulin into your body. This metabolic biofuel cell helps, use the excess blood sugar in the bloodstream to generate that electricity. Which again, I like what you said, it's like the biomimicry, it's like the beta cells inside your body, in the pancreas reacting to excess glucose that combine that with artificial beta cells to complete the second half, which is the insulin production helps your body, metabolize that glucose and brings it back down to anormal level. So, we've got this, I don't know. It's like a fully packaged all-in-one solution, self-powering, self-reinforcing solves the problem and the stimulus that causes the thing to turn on is exactly the problem that you're trying to.
Farbod: Right! The problem is actually part of the solution as well, which is another one of those win-win scenarios.
Daniel: Yeah, pretty sweet.
Farbod: And that kind of brings us to the. So, what, you know, it's obviously good for the end users of this because they can now have an alternative to that system that’s exterior, it can help save their lives. It's powered by the thing. That's giving them issues to begin with. It's all great. But what does this mean for actually reaching the market? And, you know, you and I, we always talk about how much it's great to see achievements in Academia, but it's even better to see plans to make it something that we can access in our everyday lives and you know, reap the benefits of. So, they talk about this, they're like look at its current level, it's not ready to go to market. We need so much more R&D to go into this. We need so many like tests clinical trials to happen that we actually need an industry partner. So, if you're listening and you're someone that's capable of doing is where you have the right connections, and you think this is interesting, you should reach out to this folk, this group at ETH Zurich. I think we have the lead author, Dr. Martin, professor of biotechnology and bioengineering, reach out to them and let's make this happen. But before moving on, I keep saying this, but I want to do a full recap of what this article was, right?
Daniel: Yeah, hit it.
Farbod: Diabetes is a problem. It means your body cannot generate the insulin required to keep your glucose levels at the right level. That's typically happening because the beta cells in your pancreas, just aren't functioning, like they should be. So, what most people do is that they use an external device that monitors your glucose levels and inject insulin into your body, whenever you need it. Now, these folks have come up with an alternative system that is based around a fuel cell and that fuel cell is actually powered by that glucose, what that means Is that you can embed it into your body and when your glucose levels spike, this fuel cell turns on and whenever it generates electricity, it actually triggers synthetic beta cells inside of that fuel cell system that can generate that insulin, which brings your glucose level back down. And also turns off that fuel cell, essentially you have a self-regulating system that is not only helping keep the patient alive, but powering itself on with the thing that is causing damage to begin with.
Daniel: Nailed that man.
Farbod: Boom, I do my best.
Daniel: Before we wrap up our, I do want to mention a couple of our friends have reached out, they ask, how can we help? We love people asking how they can help, big part of why we continue to do this, right? Where, you know, more than 100 episodes in we're going strong, were more excited about this than ever is the fact that this community keeps growing. So, if you can take this episode, share it with a friend, if you think they liked it or find your favorite episode of The NextByte and share it with them. One of our favorite things to say around here is friends, don't let friends, miss an episode of The NextByte. So, if you're really a truly good friend of the podcast, and of your own friends, I think you should probably share this with someone. What do you think?
Farbod: I think that's the best advice I've heard all of 2023. Hey, I spend most of my time with you if I need better advice, it needs to come with you. That's probably my fault. Yeah yeah, take that. But as always folks thank you so much for listening. And yeah, Will capture the next one?
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The Next Byte Podcast: We're two engineers on a mission to simplify complex science & technology, making it easy to understand. In each episode of our show, we dive into world-changing tech (such as AI, robotics, 3D printing, IoT, & much more), all while keeping it entertaining & engaging along the way.