Monday, May 24, 2010

Glucose Fuel Cells

One of the big problems science fiction (to say nothing of actual medical science) has had a problem with is how do you power all these cool cybernetic gismos you, the author, want to put in someone's body. Going back to the Six Million Dollar Man (and Martin Caidin's Cyborg novels upon which the series was based), the most common power source seems to be nuclear, robably Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators. They certainly have the longevity for the job, with endurances measured in decades. Indeed, these devices were used in pacemakers in years past, and according to the Wikipedia article, some ninety of these are still in service.

Realistically, though, equipping j random cyborg with plutonium pellets seems problematic on a number of levels.

This is a problem I've wrestled with before, and my solution, as it appeared in a brief mention in Irreconcilable Differences was the glucose fuel cell. I reasoned, positing it, that since fuel cells can extract hydrogen from hydrocarbon fuels such as alcohol or gasoline, it seemed reasonable they could extract it from carbohydrates like glucose, which the body conveniently supplies from food energy. As long as one didn't get carried away with them and exceed the fuel supply the body could deliver, it seemed like a nice solution.

Using these gadgets gave my cyborgs a different feel from the brute force cybernetics of yesteryear. It meant that they were predominantly meat with hormonal implants and small, low power cybernetics.

It also appears to be practical. Via Singularity Hub, comes the news that scientists in France have not only built such a thing, but implanted them in rats and had them function. The scientific paper is here.

Interestingly, the paper also discusses using urea as one of the fuels, though not with this particular fuel cell. If practical, such a fuel cell would be even better, as it would use metabolic waste as its fuel. This, by contrast, had not occurred to me, and it's a great addition. The body can afford to be far more generous with its waste products than its primary fuel chemistry.

The future just keeps arriving, doesn't it? :)


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John Foberg said...

Great topic James! Great discussion regarding glucose..

My proposal for biological fuel cell is engineering a symbiotic biology with nitrogen fixing bacteria.

Either that or tinkering at the mitochondrial level. Remember Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. Brings back memories of reading A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle...

JRS said...

That is an interesting approach. As I said in the post, the idea of using the body's waste products as fuel for a fuel cell appeals to me a great deal. My only concern is the biocompatibility of the nitrogen fixing bacteria's waste products with the host human body.


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