Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently announced that they have found a way to design a biofilm that can harvest energy during the evaporation of sweat and convert it into electricity.

A potential invention

The biofilm, published in the journal Nature Communications, is predicted to have the potential to revolutionize the world of wearable electronics, powering everything from medical sensors to personal electronics. core. “It’s real green energy, and unlike other so-called ‘green energy’ sources, the way it’s produced is completely green,” said Xiaomeng Liu, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at the university. UMass Amherst School of Engineering and lead author of the paper.

That’s because the biofilm is a paper-thick sheet of bacterial cells naturally produced by an engineered version of the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens. G. sulfurreducens were previously known to produce electricity and were once used in “microbiological batteries” to power electrical devices.

Microbial-powered batteries have great potential.

But such microbial batteries require G. sulfurreducens to be cared for and provided with constant nutrition. This new biofilm, by contrast, can power a lot, if not more, than a comparable sized battery, and it works and works non-stop, because it’s dead. . And because it’s dead, it doesn’t need to be loaded with nutrients.

“It’s much more effective,” said Derek Lovley, distinguished professor of microbiology at UMass Amherst and co-author of the paper. “We’ve simplified the power generation process by reducing the processing required and sustainably growing the cells in a biofilm, and then using that cell agglomeration to cut the head. into energy, making things simpler and unlocking more potential.

How does it work?

The secret behind this new biofilm is that it generates energy from the moisture in your skin. Although we read stories about solar energy every day, at least 50% of the solar energy that reaches the earth is in evaporating water. “This is a huge source of untapped energy,” said Jun Yao, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMass, and co-author of the paper. Since the surface of our skin is constantly wet with sweat, this biofilm can “plug into the skin” and convert the energy in evaporation into energy for small electronic devices.

“The limiting factor of wearable electronics is always the power supply. Batteries need to be constantly changed or charged to be able to continue using those devices. They’re also bulky,” says Yao. , heavy and uncomfortable”. However, a small, thin, transparent flexible biofilm that has a constant and stable power supply and can be applied directly to the skin like Band-Aid, could solve all these problems.

What makes all this work is that the bacterium G. sulfurreducens is nurtured and grown in colonies that are like thin mats, and each individual bacterium is connected to each other via a series of nanowires. nature. The team will then harvest these mats and use lasers to carve small electronic circuits into them. After the membranes are etched, they are sandwiched between the electrodes and finally sealed in a soft, sticky, breathable polymer that you can apply directly to your skin. Once this tiny battery is “plugged into” your body, it can power small wearable devices.


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