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Scientists Test Battery Powered by the Body's Oxygen

Medical implants such as pacemakers and gastric stimulators have improved our lives, but the batteries in these devices eventually run out and require surgery to replace them.

It raises a futuristic question: what if there was a way to avoid cutting a patient's body open to replace a battery?

A team of Chinese scientists have come up with a possible method to pull that off by developing an implantable battery that uses oxygen already inside the human body to continuously power itself up.

They published their results in a new paper in the journal Chem, in which they also showed that the battery is safe inside lab rats — paving the way, potentially, for gadgets that work this way in humans.

The idea is that the element oxygen, present inside our bodies, can act as a cathode, a battery electrode that facilitates the flow of electricity, and can be "obtained continuously through metabolism," the researchers write.

On that principle, they constructed an implantable battery with electrodes made from gold and sodium, both chemicals safe for the human body. These chemicals interact with the body's oxygen to produce electricity, with a plastic skin serving as a barrier around the battery.

The next step involved the researchers putting the device, called a sodium-oxygen (Na-O2) battery, inside rats just under their skin. They tracked how much electricity these batteries produced and found that they generated outputs of between 1.3 and 1.4 volts.

They also measured the rat's vital signs and looked for any sign of inflammation, but found none.

The energy output wasn't enough to power advanced implantable medical devices, they said, but it's a promising proof of concept that shows oxygen inside the body can help power up a biologically safe battery.

"When you think about it, oxygen is the source of our life," Tianjin University of Technology researcher and corresponding author Xizheng Liu said in a statement. "If we can leverage the continuous supply of oxygen in the body, battery life won’t be limited by the finite materials within conventional batteries."

The next step for the researchers is to make another iteration of the battery that would be even more powerful, yet still safe for the inside of a body.

If they succeed and commercialize the concept, the ramifications for patients could be significant — ensuring that pacemakers and implantable medical tech in their bodies never die out, at least until they do.

More on medical devices: Report Reveals How Faulty Medical Implants Are Killing Patients