By SUE VORENBERG
Scripps Howard News Service
February 12, 2006
In the next five years, scientists from New Mexico and other states hope to use the eel and other creatures to help design a battery that could power such functions as artificial retinas and kidneys.
"We're using nature as a source of inspiration," said Susan Rempe, a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who is working on the project. "We want to understand very carefully how nature accomplishes these things."
The National Institutes of Health in October awarded a five-year, $6.5 million study to the University of Illinois, the project leader. Sandia is getting about $1.5 million for its role in the effort.
Scientists expect to get the money this month and start work.
Doctors and scientists are developing small implants, such as artificial retinas for people with macular degeneration and artificial kidneys for people on dialysis.
But those devices must have external power sources, which the patient must carry, Rempe said.
The idea is to get power for such devices the same way human or animal cells do: in a small package that uses proteins to move chemicals around and create electrical charges.
The goal is to make batteries out of materials that mimic eel or human cells so the body won't reject them.
If scientists can do that, the battery could be powered by the human body so a patient wouldn't need to carry anything around, said Eric Jakobsson, a biophysicist at the University of Illinois and the principal investigator.
The eel is a great model for the ambitious project. It has been studied extensively for centuries.
Its tail has a positive charge while its head is negatively charged. When the eel touches its tail and head to other animals, it sends electric shocks through their bodies. An electric eel's currents can be as strong as 650 volts.
"We know on the (cellular) membrane and the electronic level exactly what the electronic eel does," Jakobsson said.
The next step, which the study will address, is to understand the smaller workings inside the eel's cells - how they selectively move proteins around through tiny channels to create energy in specific ways, he said.
That will come through laboratory chemical studies, computer modeling and biological tests in animals, Jakobsson said.
A focus of the chemical studies will be on how to make a battery that can power an implant with materials smaller than a human cell - and how to make those materials come together to build that battery on their own, said Jeff Brinker, a Sandia scientist who is also working on the study.
"It's a very challenging problem," Brinker said. "You have to be able to control structure and the positioning (of many chemicals)."
Manufacturing the batteries would cost a lot more than $6.5 million; the goal of this study is to prove it can be done, Jakobsson said.
The group will likely seek more funding from the Department of Energy as the study continues, he said.
Scientists are excited about the potential, Rempe said.
"It's going to be a challenge," she said. "This is brand new."
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