Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Soylent Electric Company: You are the Battery

Running low on power for your cell phone? Just eat another candy bar, then open up a vein - because pretty soon your portable electronics may be able to run off your blood.












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We've run stories about various ways that engineers hope to power devices by scavenging energy from humans. Some, like power boots and backpacks, convert motion of the wearer or bearer to usable energy. Others, like the thermoelectric headband, convert the heat your body puts out into electricity.

The problem (at least one of them) with running your cell phone with energy from your body is that your body has to get that from somewhere. Specifically, it comes from food. Your stomach breaks down the food through digestion to produce, among other things, sugars. The sugars combine with oxygen to move your muscles and create heat to keep your body at a stable temperature. Finally, either your body motion or body heat is converted back into electricity with power boots, backpacks, headbands, or some other clever device.

New research is on the verge of simplifying the process by converting the sugar in your body directly to electricity. That would eliminate the last two steps in the process described above. Besides streamlining everything, the steps cut out are among the most inefficient in the sequence. Instead, you could have a fuel cell implanted in your body to convert sugars directly into useable electricity. According to the BBC, they've already done it in rats that, they claim, suffered no ill effects as a result.

Frankly, I think this idea has tremendous potential. Nature has made us into very effective biofuel producing machines. We can eat an enormous range of foods that all end up, ultimately, as simple sugars. Conventional biofuel production, on the other hand, typically is only commercially viable with a few sources, like corn, sugar cane, and sawgrass. We can eat burgers, fries, carrots, some mess called couscous or quinoa, and still end up with enough sugar in our blood to play Angry Birds or expand our Google+ circles without stopping by an electrical outlet for a charge.

Imagine the potential - instead of a car adapter, your iPhone 43SG will come with an IV needle and a length of hose. Running low on power? Just choke down a handful of candy corn and you're good to go.

You know those health clubs that have hooked the treadmills and elliptical machines to generators to run the lights and TVs? Old tech. Now you can have fast food places with chairs that could extract energy directly from Americans ever-expanding backsides. In fact, because the process converts food energy to electricity, it would be like putting us all on a diet every time we plug in.

Maybe we could power whole cities with thousands of people who do nothing but eat junk food and put out power through their implanted fuel cells, all while getting perpetually skinnier (and therefore, by People magazine standards, more beautiful).

I'm not sure I'd want to be surrounded by machines that rely on my bodily fluids to run - it would be like living in a house full of little electronic vampires. Hmmm, I think I'll go plug in my laptop before it gets any ideas.

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