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.


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Researchers have found a running style for six-legged robots that significantly improves on the traditional nature-inspired method of movement.

The research, conducted by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland, found that as long as the robots are not equipped with insect-like adhesive pads, it is faster for them to move with only two legs on the ground at any given time.

Robotics has in the past few years made heavy use of biomimicry – the practice of mimicking natural systems – resulting in six-legged robots being designed to move like insects. In nature, insects use what is known as a tripod gait, where they have three legs on the ground at a time, so it had been assumed that this was the most efficient way for similarly legged robots to move.

However, by undertaking a series of computer simulations, tests on robots and experiments on Drosophila melanogaster – better known as the common fruit fly – the scientists found that the two-legged approach, which they have dubbed the bipod gait, results in faster and more efficient movement.

The core goal of the research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, was to confirm whether the long-held assumption that a tripod gait was best was indeed correct.

“We wanted to determine why insects use a tripod gait and identify whether it is, indeed, the fastest way for six-legged animals and robots to walk,” said Pavan Ramdya, study co-lead and corresponding author.

Initially, this involved the use of a simulated insect model based on the common fruit fly and an algorithm designed to mimic different evolutionary stages. This algorithm simulated different potential gaits to create a shortlist of those that it deemed to be the fastest.

This, however, shed light on why insects have a tripod gait – and why it may not be the best option for robots. The simulations showed that the traditional tripod gait works in combination with the adhesive pad found on the ends of insects’ legs to make climbing over vertical surfaces such as rocks easier and quicker.

Robots, however, are typically designed to walk along flat surfaces, and so the benefits of such a gait are lost.

“Our findings support the idea that insects use a tripod gait to most effectively walk on surfaces in three dimensions, and because their legs have adhesive properties. This confirms a long-standing biological hypothesis,” said Ramdya. “Ground robots should therefore break free from only using the tripod gait”.

Study co-lead authors Robin Thandiackal (left) and Pavan Ramdya with the six-legged robot used in the research. Images courtesy of EPFL/Alain Herzog

To for always corroborate the simulation’s findings, the researchers built a six-legged robot that could move either with a bipod or tripod gait, and which quickly confirmed the research by being faster when moving with just two legs on the ground at once.

However, they went further by confirming that the adhesive pads were in fact playing a role in the insect’s tripod movement.

They did this by equipping the fruit flies with tiny polymer boots that would cover the adhesive pads, and so remove their role in the way the insects moved. The flies’ responses confirms their theory: they began moving with a bipod-like gate rather than their conventional tripod-style movement.

“This result shows that, unlike most robots, animals can adapt to find new ways of walking under new circumstances,” said study co-lead author Robin Thandiackal.

As bizarre as the research sounds, it provides valuable new insights both for roboticists and biologists, and could lead to a new standard in the way that six legged robots are designed to move.

“There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species,” added Thandiackal. “We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”