A low cost paper-based battery inspired by the Japanese art of origami could help power diagnostic devices in the developing world.
The device, developed by Seokheun ‘Sean’ Choi, an engineer from New York’s Binghamton University, uses microbial respiration to generate power. Just a drop of bacteria-containing liquid would generate a few microwatts, enough to power a paper-based biosensor.
The technology was described in an article in the latest issue of the journal Nano Energy.
"Dirty water has a lot of organic matter," Choi said. "Any type of organic material can be the source of bacteria for the bacterial metabolism."
The device, about the size of a matchbook, costs about five cents to manufacture, which makes it particularly suitable for applications in the developing world. It relies on an inexpensive air-breathing cathode made of nickel-coated paper. The anode is screen printed with carbon paints, creating a hydrophilic zone with wax boundaries.
Choi envisions physicians working in developing countries with limited access to resources could use the batteries to power diagnostic devices.
"Paper is cheap and it's biodegradable," Choi said. "And we don't need external pumps or syringes because paper can suck up a solution using capillary force."
While paper-based biosensors have shown promise in this area, the existing technology must be paired with hand-held devices for analysis. Choi says he envisions a self-powered system in which a paper-based battery would create enough energy to run the biosensor.
Choi recalls an actual ‘lightbulb moment’ while working on an earlier iteration of the paper-based batteries, before he tried the origami approach. "I connected four of the devices in series, and I lit up this small LED," he said. "At that moment, I knew I had done it!"
Choi and his team will be developing a commercially viable solution as a part of a $300,000 three-year project funded by the National Science Foundation.