Natural Battery Design Inspired by the Electric Eel

Although batteries are seemingly ubiquitous in modern society, battery design has not been keeping up with technology. As computers and electronic devices become increasingly faster and smaller, a need for new battery technology with substantially reduced and flexible footprint becomes more urgent. A revolution in battery technology is long overdue. One research group from the University of Fribourg has attempted to solve this by going back to nature’s blueprints and analyzing how electricity is generated and stored in electric eels, and applying this to the development and design of a unique type of battery.

How do electric eels generate electricity?

The electric eel is a freshwater fish known for its unique ability to generate potentially lethal shocks up to 860 volts with 1 ampere of current. About 80% of the electric eel’s body is made up of three complex electric organs. The eel’s electric organ contains thousands of specialized cells called electrocytes which are stacked in long rows separated by fluid-filled spaces. Each electrocyte pumps positively charged ions out of the cell, creating an energy gradient that can be harnessed when the electrocyte flips its pump direction. When this happens, a small voltage is created across the cell, which is amplified by thousands of cells working in parallel, resulting in the capability of generating very large electrical charges.

How do the novel batteries work?

The new batteries under development consist of a series of saltwater and freshwater gels that are separated on a sheet. These gels are bridged by gel channels on a second sheet that selectively allow either positive or negative ions to pass, directing the flow of ions in very specific directions when the two sheets are in contact. This control of ion flow produces a small amount of voltage per gel but can produce up to hundreds of volts with thousands of microscopic gels in parallel. Large sheets can be arranged and packed using origami folding techniques to allow the correct gels to come in contact with each other in a space-efficient manner with a very small footprint. Because the batteries can be printed on thin sheets, they can be produced very small, are by nature soft and flexible, and can be made to comfortably fit items better than traditional rigid batteries. Artificial versions of the electric eel’s electricity generating cells could be developed for applications such as microscopic devices or medical implants, among many other uses.

Perhaps this cutting-edge research can advance battery technology and form the basis for novel battery design. The potential for this research is vast and will require further extensive analysis, but the future is exceedingly bright.

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