Patience, Patience... Biobatteries Really ARE the Future

July 13, 2022

Biobatteries–batteries based on biological processes–have been around for over a decade. So why can’t you run your flashlight on them yet?

Although exciting in concept, the first generation of biobatteries lacked realistic application. Generally based on glucose metabolism, early biobatteries measured energy generation “success” in minutes–or less.

Over the years, engineering improvements have permitted limited commercial development. They are currently used in medical implants, such as pacemakers and insulin pumps. In these instances, only very small amounts of energy are required, so the device’s peak power requirement is very low.

However, the quantity of power that can be generated by biobatteries is limited, posing challenges for using them in other small spaces. A smartphone, for instance, might require 40,000 individual biobatteries, linked together, to power its operation. (Imagine troubleshooting that lineup!) Performance longevity -- the amount of time a battery can be expected to operate independently without repair or maintenance intervention -- continues to be an issue as well.

But by combining a trio of common bacteria species, researchers at the Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Sciences have finally innovated a biobattery that can perform for weeks at a time. These new tri-bacterial batteries also offer the advantage of easier assembly. Contained in one-inch square blocks, they can be configured into custom setups to supply the specific voltage and current required. Work is ongoing to reduce the footprint even further -- with the ultimate goal of producing something akin to battery “dust,” individual units that would each contain only a few living bacterial cells. The bacteria could even be ‘programmed’ to self-assemble into the formations needed for a given device, further assisting the process of miniaturization.

These two permutations -- longer lifespans and smaller, easier-to-configure architecture -- have opened the door to potential new commercial applications:

  • In medicine, drug delivery, wound healing, and biomarker monitoring could be executed more effectively using devices powered by biobatteries. Simple home disease-testing kits for serious maladies including cancer could be possible. As biobatteries operate satisfactorily at room temperature, lesser-developed countries without widespread refrigeration could be dramatically impacted by the availability of such tests.
  • Hearing correction could be assisted by batteries with lifespans 20 times longer than those used now. Vision correction could be aided by self-moisturizing contact lenses.
  • Biologists are excited about the possibilities of tracking individual animals among larger populations using tiny biobatteries that would not alter an animal’s normal behaviors.
  • The defense industry’s spying and surveillance efforts could expand exponentially with devices that could withstand harsh field conditions without monitoring or other intervention. 

The innate advantages of biobatteries, once commercially standardized, will ultimately move many industries in their direction. They are by nature non-polluting and environmentally friendly. Their safety profile is much higher than traditional batteries because they can neither leak, nor explode. They do not require an external power supply, as their biological processes churn constantly, producing regular and consistent energy output. 

And someday, they may even power flashlights!

Interested in learning more about the promises of biobattery technology? Capitol Tech’s Engineering Technology master’s program offers opportunities across various engineering technologies.


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