Research highlight

Engineering: Eel-inspired electrical source shockingly powerful


December 14, 2017

A power source inspired by electric eels is reported this week in Nature. This concept can be used to power soft robots, which require power sources that are not hard and do not require plugging in.

As the integration of technology into living organisms progresses, electrical power sources that are biocompatible, mechanically compliant, and able to harness the chemical energy available inside biological systems are required.

The electric eel can generate powerful electrical discharges of 100 watts to stun prey without the use of a battery. Instead, the eel relies on thousands of specialized cells called electrocytes, which are stacked in a way that creates a large discharge. Michael Mayer and colleagues developed a hydrogel-based tubular system to mimic some of the features of electrocytes, and designed a careful, origami-like folding of the structure to help to control the discharge of power. The result is a power source that can generate voltages similar to the electric eel.

This is the first example of a soft, flexible, and transparent artificial electrical organ made from potentially biocompatible materials. The authors conclude that if next generation designs can improve performance, these systems may open the door to electrical energy for powering implants, wearable technologies, and other mobile devices.

doi: 10.1038/nature24670

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