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Future medical implants could be charged through the skin using sound

KAUST demo

Whether it’s pacemakers for regulating heartbeats or special pumps for releasing insulin, electronic implants are already a big part of modern medicine. As we continue to move into a cyborg future, similar implants are only going to become more common. But how do you power these devices? Switching out batteries isn’t so easy to do when it potentially involves a surgical procedure simply to locate the implant in question.

Researchers from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and King Saud bin Abdulaziz University are laying the groundwork for a new method of charging bioelectronic implants — by using a soft, biocompatible hydrogel material that’s able to absorb sound waves that are passed from the body from the outside. While it’s still early in the development process, they have demonstrated that it is possible to use a range of ultrasonic devices to rapidly charge an electrical device buried within several centimeters of tissue in the form of beef.

“We have shown that MXenes, a new class of two-dimensional materials, can absorb ultrasound energy from standard medical ultrasound probes, [as] found in doctor offices and hospitals, or even at home,” Husam Niman Alshareef, a materials scientist at KAUST, told Digital Trends. “We coupled MXene with [a] simple triboelectric micropower generator, which allowed us to charge this triboelectric generator remotely by ultrasound. The MXene absorbs the ultrasound energy remotely, without physical contact, and charges the triboelectric generator.”

Bioelectric ultrasonic 1
KAUST 2020

Hydrogels are formed from long polymer molecules cross-linked to create a three-dimensional network that’s able to hold a lot of water. This makes the hydrogel material flexible and stretchy, but also biocompatible (meaning that it’s not harmful or toxic to living tissue) and a good electrical conductor. This makes them extremely useful for bioelectronic applications such as this.

“The next part [of our research] is to implant the device in laboratory animals and test their stability, long-term biocompatibility, and determine if there exists any adverse effects,” Alshareef said.

It’s too early to say for definite whether this technology will find its way into future medical implant devices such as pacemakers or neurostimulators, but Alshareef is hopeful. It could, he said, mean that patients “may no longer need to suffer from painful surgeries to replace batteries.”

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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