Dec 14, 2017 | By Julia

A team of international researchers have turned to an unlikely yet ingenious source of electric power that runs on only salt and water: the common electric eel. For millennia, the electrophorus electricus, a knife-fish widely known as the electric eel, has been capable of zapping its prey through a sophisticated electrical system that can generate up to 600V and 100W of power. Only now are scientists beginning to tap into this bio-dynamic power source, harnessing it for a potentially wide range of applications that could power anything from pacemakers to the cyborgs of the future.

the electrophorus electricus, commonly known as the electric eel

The recent findings were published December 13 in the scientific journal Nature. Headed by researchers from the University of Fribourg’s Adolphe Merkle Institute, the University of California San Diego, and the University of Michigan, the study documents the development of so-called artificial electric eel organs, a series of soft, flexible battery-like devices known as hydrogels, made up of water-based polymer blends.

3D printed hydrogels

As described in the study, the team drew inspiration from the common electric eel, effectively reverse engineering it with a 3D printer in a lab. “The eel polarizes and depolarizes thousands of cells instantaneously to put out these high voltages," explains Max Shtein, a University of Michigan associate professor of materials science and engineering, and co-author of the study. "It's a fascinating system to look at from an engineering perspective—its performance metrics, its fundamental building blocks and how to use them."

The basic mechanics of the electric eel’s power revolve around a phenomenon called transmembrane transport. In essence, rows of electrocyte cells make up the electric organ that run along the body of the eel. When the eel nukes its prey, the positively charged sodium and potassium ions in and around these cells surge toward the eel’s head, resulting in a positive charge for the front of the electrocyte and a negative charge for the tail end. The result is a voltage of approximately 150 millivolts flowing across each cell. While that may not sound like a lot on its own, these electrocyte voltages add up to some serious power, much like the lineup of AAA batteries powering a flashlight.

In the eel, these electrocytes can generate hundreds of volts—comprising the electric power that scientists are now attempting to recreate. Instead of using sodium and potassium, however, the researchers built a similar system from sodium and chloride, the natural combination found in common table salt, that they then dissolved in water-based hydrogel. Using the state-of-the-art 3D bioprinter at the University of Fribourg’s Adolphe Merkle Institute, the research team produced thousands of miniscule droplets of this salty hydrogel on a plastic sheet, pressed up against a second sheet with hydrogel droplets made up of pure water. The alternating droplet pattern is remarkably similar to the electrocyte compartments found in an eel, resulting in an impressive electrical output. In tandem, 612 artificial eel cells can generate 110 volts—about as much energy as a household outlet.

Of course, what scientists cook up in a lab doesn’t come close to the efficiency seen in the sophisticated organic systems that evolve naturally over millions of years, at least not yet. "The electric organs in eels are incredibly sophisticated; they're far better at generating power than we are," explains lead author Michael Mayer, a biophysics professor at the Merkle Institute. "But the important thing for us was to replicate the basics of what's happening." For the time being, Mayer notes that his team’s hydrogel systems are only capable of energizing very low-power instruments. “The device we’re closest to powering is probably a pacemaker,” Mayer says. Yet by tweaking their research and 3D printing even thinner gels, there’s no telling how powerful these energy sources could become.

“The holy grail, at least to me, would be to design this thing so it can recharge itself inside the body,” Mayer says.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



Maybe you also like:


Leave a comment:

Your Name:


Subscribe us to Feeds twitter facebook   

About provides the latest news about 3D printing technology and 3D printers. We are now seven years old and have around 1.5 million unique visitors per month.

News Archive