Technology You Can Wear: New Stretchy Bio-Battery Could Be Powered by Your Sweaty Gym Socks

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This entirely textile-based, bacteria-powered bio-battery could one day be integrated into wearable electronics. Seokheun Choi

A bio-battery powered by bacteria could one day be used for wearable electronics—and your sweat could power it. Researchers from Binghamton University, State University of New York have developed a textile-based, bacteria-powered bio-battery, that stretches and twists like a piece of fabric.

“There is a clear and pressing need for flexible and stretchable electronics that can be easily integrated with a wide range of surroundings to collect real-time information,” Seokheun Choi, electric and computer engineering professor at Binghamton, said in a statement. This technology must be adapted for complex and moving surfaces, like body parts or organs, he said. Plus, it’s sustainable, renewable, and eco-friendly.

The bio-battery builds on a series of battery-related and microbial-based power studies happening at the university. Choi’s previous research has developed several paper-based flexible batteries, including a battery that can be powered by spit and a disposable battery that folds like an origami ninja star. The latter was able to power an LED light for 20 minutes. Another, built by Sony back in 2012, used waste paper as its fuel. This battery, however, is textile-based, making it easier to integrate it into something you could wear. For instance, the battery could eventually use your sweat to power diabetic sensors or heart sensors, such as an electrocardiogram. It could also be worn as socks, gloves, or a Fitbit—with battery power.  

“In this report, we developed, for the first time, a flexible and stretchable [microbial fuel cell] monolithically integrated into a single sheet of textile substrate,” Choi told Newsweek in an email.

The bio-battery could function as a platform for future, wearable electronics—a growing inevitable necessity as a result of the “Internet of Things,” said Choi.

There is a slight catch, though. The bacteria-powered battery is “arguably the most underdeveloped for wearable electronic applications because microbial cytotoxicity may pose health concerns,” said Choi. But, he noted, humans have more bacteria cells than human cells in their body. If the battery could use bacteria that’s already on humans, the technology could be used for wearable electronics. Those bacteria could come from your sweat.

GettyImages-588299166 Sweat beads fly into the air as Ecuador's Carlos Andres Mina fights Ireland's Joseph Ward (UNSEEN) during the Men's Light Heavy (81kg) match at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Riocentro - Pavilion 6 in Rio de Janeiro on August 10, 2016. Getty

“Sweat generated from the human body can be a potential fuel to support bacterial viability, providing the long-term operation of the [microbial fuel cells],” Choi said.

Though the power efficiency needs to be improved for future uses, the study, published in Advanced Energy Materials on Wednesday, showed that the bio-battery generated electricity stably after being tested under repeated cycles of stretching and twisting. Choi’s team “considered a flexible, stretchable, miniaturized bio-battery as a truly useful energy technology because of their sustainable, renewable and eco-friendly capabilities.”

“For the long-term goal, other wearable electronics,” like Fitbits, socks, and gloves, “can be powered too.”