From Empire State Development via SUNY Binghampton: Spit-powered Biobatteries

SUNY Binghampton University

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Empire State Development

7.8.17
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Origami, the ancient art of folding paper into fanciful shapes and figures, may seem like an unlikely way to uncover clean energy alternatives. But for researchers at Binghamton University in New York’s Southern Tier region, that’s exactly how they made a groundbreaking discovery.

The series of small, powerful and inexpensive paper-based “BioBatteries” that developed from a simple origami shape in the lab of Assistant Professor Seokheun “Sean” Choi, PhD—and run on bacteria found in a few drops of dirty water—could transform point-of-care diagnostic testing in remote locations across the globe where medical resources are scarce. Choi’s research is yet another example of the pivotal role higher education plays in developing game-changing ideas for New York state industries. The continuing support Choi and his team of undergraduate and doctoral students receive from the university and from state and national grants to develop this technology has also allowed promising parallel research in bacteria-powered solar cells and spit-fueled paper batteries that cost pennies to produce. All of it could revolutionize how BioBatteries power disposable diagnostic electronics in dangerous or isolated regions of the developing world.

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Biobatteries that use common bacteria to conduct electrical current, also known as microbial fuel cells (MFCs), were first developed in the early 20th century. Today, MFCs power electronic devices which require minimal energy and simple biosensors such as those found in disposable pregnancy and HIV tests. Their effectiveness is limited, however, by the low power single cells can generate. Choi and his student team at Binghamton’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering have spent the past several years trying to change that. Building on Choi’s initial finding that stringing several biobatteries together made them perform better, the team found that when stacking them on a single sheet of folded paper, power increased exponentially.

In peer-reviewed journals Choi and his research team showed how microbial fuel cells embedded in a paper origami matchbook, and later, pressed into a flat, transforming ninja star, were the most simple, biodegradable and inexpensive ways to generate the kind of electricity needed to power simple and more sophisticated diagnostic biosensors in the field. Compared to traditional batteries, they are not only easy to transport but are also exponentially cheaper to produce.

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