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Innovation

This edible battery could power the world of diagnostics and sustainable energy

Researchers have created an edible power resource that could boost healthcare and help preserve the environment.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer
Edible battery in hand

An edible battery could be a revolutionary product for monitoring the gastrointestinal tract.

Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

Any Italian city, you would imagine, is a gastronomic delight -- and the Italian port city of Genoa is no less an example of one.

Pesto, the green sauce made from basil, is a Genoese original, as is aglioteli, a garlic sauce, and Prescinsêua, which is a type of cheese. The city is also known for a wealth of delicious seafood dishes made from anchovies, octopus and swordfish.

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Now, Genoa is also home to the world's first edible battery, which is made from an eclectic array of ingredients such as beeswax and seaweed.

While this battery may not be starring on the menus of the many fine restaurants of Genoa, it may save your life one day -- or at the very least an expensive surgery -- by simply dissolving into your digestive tract.

Gut reaction

The gastrointestinal tract -- where your food is pulverized and digested -- is one of the most important parts of your body's machinery. Research shows that treating it well has a direct and outsized impact on brain health and functioning.

Therefore, any issue in this tract -- made up of your colon (large intestine), rectum, small intestine, stomach, esophagus, throat, and mouth -- needs to be attended to immediately.

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One of the scourges of this digestive system is colon cancer, a leading killer of middle-aged men and women today. Survival rates hinge on being able to detect it early.

Unfortunately, most examinations of the gastrointestinal region involve sending a thin tube with a camera affixed to the tip either down your throat to the small intestine or through the rectum to the colon, neither of which are pleasant experiences.

However, an innovative, and increasingly attractive -- albeit less common -- method is to dispatch a camera housed in a small, vitamin pill-shaped capsule along with silver oxide batteries on its maiden voyage down into your gut. 

Part secret-service spycam, part Jedi starfighter, the pill -- primarily used to inspect the small intestine in a process called capsule endoscopy -- makes its way through the digestive tract while taking pictures at the rate of six a second, dispatching them wirelessly to an electronic belt worn by the patient. 

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While this process sounds great so far, there's a problem. Ingestible devices, as amazing as they are, require medical oversight while they're administered and they sometimes get lodged into the mountainous crevices of your innards. 

Out of nowhere, you've gone from a routine, affordable cancer test to surgery and a humongous medical bill.

Edibles for your health

But what if the pill camera was made of substances that were not harmful and somehow quietly melded away into nothingness once it served its tour of duty?

Italian researchers from Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT-Italian Institute of Technology) have engineered a battery that could power devices, such as the pill camera, using ingredients you may find in any food lover's pantry.

For the anode of this battery, the Italian researchers used riboflavin, a crucial substance necessary for cell growth and functioning, and found in a wide variety of food, including lean meats, almonds, and spinach.

Quercetin, a crucial antioxidant found in fruits and vegetables, such as onions, grapes, berries and broccoli, was picked to be the cathode.

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Activated charcoal, used to treat cases of poisoning, was used to increase electrical conductivity, while a water-based solution acted as the electrolyte.

For the separator, which is commonly used in batteries to prevent short circuits, the researchers used nori or seaweed.

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Edible gold foil of the kind that you use to bake cakes and pastries was used for the electrodes.

Then, the whole unit was encased in beeswax.

This carefully crafted work of ingenuity is able to operate at 0.65 Volts, low enough to not affect humans when they swallow it, but with enough juice to power a tiny LED for a short while.

Powering ahead

The researchers leading this promising, edible battery experiment offer a few caveats: the beeswax-made battery housing is a stellar proof-of-concept, but it needs to be scaled down a little for real-world applications.

Ingredients for the edible battery

This edible battery is made of beeswax, gold laminate, almonds, activated charcoal, nori algae, ethyl cellulose, and quercetin.

Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

Crucially, this edible battery is just one of many emerging solutions that are ushering in an edible revolution in healthcare: an edible pH sensor, a radio frequency filter, an edible pill for intra-body communication -- these are all recent advances pushing the envelope of complex, edible electronic systems.

Many of these advances are urgently needed in areas of pharmacology and health diagnostics, where battery-powered devices and sensors could keep tabs on our innards and provide information on food quality. 

Regular batteries of today, which are made up of toxic substances, will not be able to play that role. Ingestible, non-toxic batteries can also find an important role in children's toys.

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Most importantly, however, these edible batteries offer a path toward a more sustainable future in which almost everything that requires energy will be powered by a clean grid via a battery. 

Today, the substance that powers clean tech is lithium, and mining it to meet demand causes significant sustainability challenges. Only one quarter of the 88 million tons of lithium, embedded deep inside earth's core, is economically viable to mine. Even then, contamination of ground water by heavy metals is a persistent threat. And that's not taking into account huge habitat loss for wildlife and general environmental carnage.

Hence, this small, edible step in sustainable batteries could inspire a larger movement.

"While our edible batteries won't power electric cars, they are proof that batteries can be made from safer materials than current Li-ion batteries. We believe they will inspire other scientists to build safer batteries for a truly sustainable future," said Ivan Ilic, one of the co-authors of the stufy.

The researchers' paper -- An Edible Rechargeable Battery -- was recently published in the Advanced Materials journal, in which they described their proof-of-concept battery cell.

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