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Researchers have created an edible battery that’s safe to eat

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Over 2,500 children eat batteries each year and some die, edible batteries could prevent that, but they also have other uses too …

 

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Can you tell me how many batteries you use in a year? A report from the University of Illinois reveals that Americans buy about 3 billion dry-cell batteries annually, which means that an average American ends up using nearly 10 batteries a year. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise given that almost everything we use runs on batteries. What’s shocking is that out of these billions of batteries, about 2,500 end up in the stomachs of kids.

 

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Almost every day, there are numerous cases of kids swallowing batteries that power their toys, watches, or gadgets; this results in many cases of internal injuries or stomach infections.

A team of researchers at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Milan recently created a fully rechargeable battery using non-toxic edible components. This is probably the world’s first battery that is safe to ingest and entirely made of food-grade materials.

“Given the level of safety of these batteries, they could be used in children’s toys, where there is a high risk of ingestion,” said Mario Caironi, a senior researcher at IIT. However, this isn’t the only solution the edible battery could provide.

Apart from serving as an alternative to conventional toxic toy batteries, the edible battery from IIT could also play a key role in making health care applications safer than ever. For instance, doctors have to be cautious regarding the use of miniature electronic devices, such as drug-delivery robots, bio-sensors, etc inside the human body, as they come equipped with batteries made of toxic substances. An edible battery could solve this problem – especially when paired with edible electronics which are also a thing believe it or not. There are also more mundane applications, like replacing batteries in pet toys.

 

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Ivan K. Ilic, first author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at IIT, told reporters “Two main ways a battery damages human tissue when it’s inside the body is by doing water electrolysis and by the toxicity of its materials. Water electrolysis is a phenomenon where electricity with a voltage higher than 1.2 V (virtually all commercial batteries) breaks water into oxygen and hydrogen (an explosive gas), and it is very dangerous if it occurs in the stomach. Our battery is way below this voltage, around 0.65 V, so water electrolysis cannot occur. On the other hand, we used only food materials, so nothing is toxic!”

Before the battery is useful, however, the researchers will need to first enhance the battery’s power capacity. Currently, the edible battery can supply 48 microamperes of current for a bit over 10 minutes. So it can easily meet the power demand of a miniature medical device or a small LED.

“These batteries are no competition to ordinary batteries – they will not power electric cars – but they are meant to power edible electronics and maybe some other niche applications, so their main advantage is non-toxicity,” said Ilic.

 

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Surprisingly, the researchers were able to find a suitable edible material for every single component necessary for building a working edible battery. The best part is that battery manufacturers won’t have to mine anything because edible batteries can be made using ingredients typically found in a grocery store.

While all of these components are nontoxic and edible, the researchers clarify that a user is not supposed to eat the battery on purpose, which would obviate the whole point of making it rechargeable. The main purpose of this innovation is to promote the use of safer, more sustainable, and toxin-free energy storage solutions.

The IIT team is currently developing various edible electronic elements, including edible transistors. The researchers hope that once they crack the formula for edible transistors, they can build edible logic devices and power them with the battery. They also plan to develop the first fully edible electronic devices with specific functions, such as monitoring pH in the stomach and, eventually, more complex tasks.

Advanced Materials, 2023. DOI: 10.1002/adma.202211400 (About DOIs)

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