Biobattery-embedded tattoos to use sweat to power your tech

Scientists have developed a temporary tattoo with a built-in, sweat-powered biobattery that could one day be used to charge your phone while you are out for a run.

The biobattery works using lactate, a key chemical found in sweat that can be used to monitor exercise performance.

This means that the more the wearer sweats, the more energy is going to be produced, creating the interesting scenario where less physically fit people are able to produce more power.

The technology is one of the first examples of skin-based power sources, and could pave the way for a host of technologies powered by devices attached to the skin.

biobattery-tattoo

The biobattery works by using an enzyme to extract the electrons in the sweat’s lactate and move them to the battery. At present, the amount of energy produced is very small, but the researchers are confident that they will be able to develop this to enable small electronic devices to be charged.

“The current produced is not that high, but we are working on enhancing it so that eventually we could power some small electronic devices,” said Dr Wenzhao Jia, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California San Diego.

“Right now, we can get a maximum of 70 microWatts per cm², but our electrodes are only 2 by 3 millimeters in size and generate about 4 microWatts — a bit small to generate enough power to run a watch, for example, which requires at least 10 microWatts.

“So besides working to get higher power, we also need to leverage electronics to store the generated current and make it sufficient for these requirements.”

The device has also been developed as a lactate monitor, which will be a valuable tool for both doctors and athletes. Previously lactate has been monitored using a series of blood tests, so this monitor is likely to prove simpler and less invasive.

The biobattery’s reliance on sweat means that the amount of power produced can vary significantly depending on the person wearing it.

The researchers tested the initial biobattery on 15 exercise bike-riding volunteers, and found that not only did those who were least fit produce the most energy, but the most regularly active participants produced the least energy.

This could affect the potential success of the technology, as such variation in performance could make it difficult to market.

However, this is one of the first examples of skin-based batteries, and the technology is likely to be developed much further.

“These represent the first examples of epidermal electrochemical biosensing and biofuel cells that could potentially be used for a wide range of future applications,” said Dr Joseph Wang, professor of nanoengineering at University of California San Diego.

From here we could see the development of an array of wearable technologies and gadgets siphoning power through our skin, perhaps even one day powering whole computers, medical augmentations and more.


Inline image courtesy of Dr Joseph Wang.


Astronauts on Mars missions risk dementia-like cognitive impairment

The efforts to send a manned mission to Mars are gearing up, but there is a new problem on the horizon. While the astronauts selected will have the honour of being the first humans to set foot on the Red Planet, they may also be some of the first to experience cognitive impairment from exposure to galactic cosmic rays.

This issue has been unearthed in a new study by scientists at UC Irvine, which found that the charged particles found in space, left over from past supernovas, can cause major damage to the central nervous system, resulting in impairment similar to that experienced by dementia sufferers.

The effects of this exposure takes several months to take hold, so has not been an issue for previous manned missions, but with the Mars mission set to take more than six months each way plus significant time spent on the Red Planet, the effects could be serious.

“This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on a two to three-year round trip to Mars,” said Charles Limoli, a professor of radiation oncology in UCI’s School of Medicine.

“Performance decrements, memory deficits, and loss of awareness and focus during spaceflight may affect mission-critical activities, and exposure to these particles may have long-term adverse consequences to cognition throughout life.”

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The study, which is published today in the journal Science Advances, saw the scientists expose rats to charged particle irradiation at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The particles, fully ionized oxygen and titanium, are very similar to the highly energetic charged particles found in the galactic cosmic rays astronauts are exposed to once they leave the Earth’s atmosphere, and so provide a good model for the likely effects.

The irradiated rats suffered from brain inflammation, disrupting the way their neurons transmitted signals and resulting in them performing increasingly poorly on behavioural tasks.

Although in rats, the scientists believe the study provides a fair representation of the effects cosmic rays will have on astronauts, making this a worrying set of findings for those involved in planning manned Mars missions.

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Images courtesy of NASA.

While NASA is currently undertaking a study of long-term spaceflight on the International Space Station, the astronauts there are largely protected by the Earth’s magnetosphere.

This means they are unlikely to be affected by such particles, which is why the agency drafted Limoli and his team in to investigate this issue.

However, having demonstrated the problem, Limoli is now faced with the challenge of figuring out how to protect astronauts from these charged particles.

One option is to put protective shielding around the areas the astronauts spend most of their time, in particular their sleeping areas, but he is skeptical about how effective this would be, saying “there is really no escaping them”.

The best option is likely to be to develop a protective medicine, but is very early days and far more work needs to be done for this to be effective.

“We are working on pharmacologic strategies involving compounds that scavenge free radicals and protect neurotransmission,” said Limoli.

“But these remain to be optimized and are under development.”

With such support for the eventual colonisation of Mars, we will need to wait and hope for a solution.

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Beginning of the end for ageing? Scientists identify DNA bundle that plays major role

Technology to prevent ageing has moved a step closer, with the identification of DNA bundles that play a vital role in the process.

While studying Werner syndrome, which results in premature ageing and death, scientists found that the bundles, known as heterochromatin, experience significant deterioration.

The scientists, from the Salk Institute and the Chinese Academy of Science, believe that their findings have has wider implications for ageing research and treatment.

“Our findings show that the gene mutation that causes Werner syndrome results in the disorganization of heterochromatin, and that this disruption of normal DNA packaging is a key driver of aging,” explained Salk professor and study senior author Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte.

“This has implications beyond Werner syndrome, as it identifies a central mechanism of aging – heterochromatin disorganization – which has been shown to be reversible.”

This means that further research into heterochromatin could eventually result in treatments that either slow or reverse the ageing process.

“[The study] suggests that accumulated alterations in the structure of heterochromatin may be a major underlying cause of cellular aging,” said Izpisua Belmonte.

“This begs the question of whether we can reverse these alterations – like remodeling an old house or car – to prevent, or even reverse, age-related declines and diseases.”

The research, which was published today in the journal Science, used gene editing technology that has only been made possible very recently.

The scientists were able to create a stem cell model of Werner syndrome by deleting a gene known as WRN from human stem cells.

Normal human cells (left) next to the genetically edited cells used to mimic Werner syndrome. Image courtesy of the Salk Institute.

Normal human cells (left) next to the genetically edited cells used to mimic Werner syndrome. Image and video courtesy of the Salk Institute.

WRN, which is short for Werner syndrome RecQ helicase-like gene, is normally responsible for maintaining DNA’s structure, but in Wener sufferers is mutated, affecting the repair and replication of DNA.

By deleting the gene, the researchers were able to mimic the genetic process that occurs in Werner syndrome to zone in on the areas of DNA it affects.

They also performed follow-up research that confirmed WRN directly interacts with the structures responsible for stabilising heterochromatin, a finding that Salk describes as the “smoking gun”.

“Our study connects the dots between Werner syndrome and heterochromatin disorganization, outlining a molecular mechanism by which a genetic mutation leads to a general disruption of cellular processes by disrupting epigenetic regulation,” said Izpisua Belmonte.

The next research step will be to find out the full extent of the role heterochromatin plays in the ageing process.

This will include determining how the DNA bundles interact with other processes known to affect ageing, including telomeres, the ends of chromosomes, which have been found to shorten as we age.