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Implanted biofuel cell converts bug’s chemistry into electricity

Case Western Reserve University scientists take step toward cyborg

An insect’s internal chemicals can be converted to electricity, potentially providing power for sensors, recording devices or to control the bug, a group of researchers at Case Western Reserve University report.

The finding is yet another in a growing list from universities across the country that could bring the creation of insect cyborgs – touted as possible first responders to super spies – out of science fiction and into reality. In this case, the power supply, while small, doesn’t rely on movement, light or batteries, just normal feeding.

The work is published in the online Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“It is virtually impossible to start from scratch and make something that works like an insect,” said Daniel Scherson, chemistry professor at Case Western Reserve and senior author of the paper.

“Using an insect is likely to prove far easier,” Scherson said. “For that, you need electrical energy to power sensors or to excite the neurons to make the insect do as you want, by generating enough power out of the insect itself.”

Scherson teamed with graduate student Michelle Rasmussen, Biology Professor Roy E. Ritzmann, Chemistry Professor Irene Lee and Biology Research Assistant Alan J. Pollack to develop an implantable biofuel cell to provide usable power.

The key to converting the chemical energy is using enzymes in series at the anode.

The first enzyme breaks the sugar, trehalose, which a cockroach constantly produces from its food, into two simpler sugars, called monosaccharides. The second enzyme oxidizes the monosaccharides, releasing electrons.

The current flows as electrons are drawn to the cathode, where oxygen from air takes up the electrons and is reduced to water.

After testing the system using trehalose solutions, prototype electrodes were inserted in a blood sinus in the abdomen of a female cockroach, away from critical internal organs.

“Insects have an open circulatory system so the blood is not under much pressure,” Ritzmann explained. “So, unlike say a vertebrate, where if you pushed a probe into a vein or worse an artery (which is very high pressure) blood does not come out at any pressure. So, basically, this is really pretty benign. In fact, it is not unusual for the insect to right itself and walk or run away afterward.”

The researchers found the cockroaches suffered no long-term damage, which bodes well for long-term use.

To determine the output of the fuel cell, the group used an instrument called a potentiostat. Maximum power density reached nearly 100 microwatts per square centimeter at 0.2 volts. Maximum current density was about 450 microamps per square centimeter.

The study was five years in the making. Progress stalled for nearly a year due to difficulties with trehalase – the first enzyme used in the series.

Lee suggested they have the trehalase gene chemically synthesized to generate an expression plasmid, which is a DNA molecule separate from chromosomal DNA, to allow the production of large quantities of purified enzyme from Escherichia coli. “Michelle then began collecting enzyme that proved to have much higher specific activities than those obtained from commercial sources,” Lee said. “The new enzyme led to success.”

The researchers are now taking several steps to move the technology forward: miniaturizing the fuel cell so that it can be fully implanted and allow an insect to run or fly normally; investigating materials that may last long inside of an insect, working with other researchers to build a signal transmitter that can run on little energy; adding a lightweight rechargeable battery.

“It’s possible the system could be used intermittently,” Scherson said. “An insect equipped with a sensor could measure the amount of noxious gas in a room, broadcast the finding, shut down and recharge for an hour, then take a new measurement and broadcast again.”

The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

January 6, 2012 - 8:04 PM No Comments

Nuvera Fuel Cells Expands Management Team in Support of Strategic Development in 2012

(L to R): Prabhu Rao, John Gartner, Roberto Cordaro, Sandy Davis, Francesco Fragasso

(L to R): Prabhu Rao, John Gartner, Roberto Cordaro, Sandy Davis, Francesco Fragasso

Billerica, MA–Nuvera Fuel Cells, leading provider of fuel cell and hydrogen generation products, announced today the creation of three new positions on its Senior Management team: Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, filled by Sandy Pipitone Davis; Vice President of Product Development and Manufacturing Operations, filled by John Gartner; and Vice President of Commercial Operations, filled by Prabhu Rao.

“The leadership team now in place positions Nuvera for a successful implementation of our go-to-market strategy focused on commercial hydrogen products for mobility,” commented Roberto Cordaro, CEO and President of Nuvera Fuel Cells. “This new team has great chemistry with one another, diversity within its members, varied experience, and a shared passion for our business. Their collaboration will accelerate our short term objectives of retailing PowerEdge and PowerTap to the material handling market, while reinforcing the long term path to mobility at large.”

Sandy Pipitone Davis, Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness
Sandy Pipitone Davis was appointed to the position of Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness. This new role was created to allow Sandy to bring her extensive experience in talent management, leadership development, organizational alignment, and employee engagement to Nuvera’s growing team. As the head of the Human Resources group, Sandy will be instrumental in managing Nuvera’s expanding recruitment activities. Prior to working at Nuvera, Sandy amassed over 15 years of leadership experience in human resources at Fidelity Investments, Colgate-Palmolive, and The TJX Companies.

John Gartner, Vice President of Product Development and Manufacturing Operations
John Gartner was appointed to the position of Vice President of Product Development and Manufacturing Operations. This new role will allow John to manage the product life cycle from post-technology development through shipment, ensuring a well manufactured and cost-effective product. John previously held senior management and leadership positions at Plug Power and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, overseeing various business segments, including manufacturing, product engineering, safety and compliance, process engineering, and product assurance.

Prabhu Rao, Vice President of Commercial Operations
Prabhu Rao has been with Nuvera since its inception in 2000 holding a number of different positions, most recently Vice President of Operations. In this role, he successfully led Nuvera through the ISO certification process, resulting in ISO 9001:2008 certification in February 2011. Previously, Prabhu was paramount in developing strategic business relationships between Nuvera and automotive OEMs. In his new role as the Vice President of Commercial Operations, Prabhu will head the Sales and Marketing group as well as the Supply Chain group, allowing for more effective management of the value streams flowing in and out of the company.

Nuvera Fuel Cells is a global leader in the development of fuel cell systems and fuel processors for both end users and OEMs. With offices located in the U.S. and Europe, Nuvera provides clean, safe, and efficient products for industrial vehicles and equipment in addition to furthering the development of power systems for automotive and transportation applications. Visit http://www.nuvera.com for more information.

January 6, 2012 - 10:40 AM No Comments