Researchers Seek To Power Medical Devices With Energy From Body

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Researchers are studying ways to use sources of energy from the body -- such as heat, sound and movement -- to power medical devices, a process known as bioenergy harvesting, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Experts say that the first medical devices to use the body's energy could be available within 10 years.

Examples of Bioenergy Harvesting

This month, researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology successfully harnessed energy generated by guinea pigs' inner ears to power a radio-wave device for five hours without compromising the animals' hearing ability.

Konstantina Stankovic -- an ear surgeon and researcher for the study -- said that the most immediate application for the device is to monitor for infections in people with an ear disease or a cochlear implant. Eventually, the device could be used to monitor hearing-loss progression.

In addition, researchers at the University of Michigan are studying how to harvest energy from heart beats to power a pacemaker. M. Amin Karami -- an aerospace engineering research fellow -- said researchers found that using energy from heart beats could generate 18 times the amount of power needed to make a pacemaker function.

Meanwhile, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University researchers are studying how to use changes in body heat to power a device.

Benefits of Bioenergy Harvesting

Experts say that hearing aids, insulin pumps, pacemakers and pain-management devices that rely on the body's energy potentially could last longer or function without the need to charge batteries.

Bioenergy harvesting also could prompt the development of innovative medical technologies that could monitor the body's inner workings.

Challenges of Bioenergy Harvesting

However, researchers note that designing devices that use the body's energy is challenging because many biological energy sources emit very low or inconsistent power, so energy must be captured and stored. In addition, energy storage units must be designed in small sizes to fit inside the body.

Paul Kohl -- a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology -- said that another challenge is that devices must not use too much energy or they risk disrupting normal body functions (Wang, Wall Street Journal, 11/26).

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