Thursday, May 26, 2011
Patients help power their own life-saving equipment
By Jaymi Heimbuch San Francisco, CA
Mon Aug 9, 2010 13:10
Solar- and body heat-powered medical device
Photo credit Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy
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Powering medical devices with energy sources other than batteries has been an area of interest for some years now. Researchers have looked at everything from harvesting kinetic energy from a person's breath to their heartbeat. But what about body heat...and what about medical devices beyond pacemakers and other implants? Scientists are experimenting with using body heat to power medical tools for hospitals with unsteady power supplies.
Providing adequate health care means having access to tools like x-ray machines, yet for hospitals in rural areas or disaster zones, access to power also limits access to these important devices. One of the most reliable sources of energy then becomes sunlight... and perhaps also the body heat of the patients being treated.
The Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy reports that Vladimir Leonov, Senior Research Scientist at the Dutch research center Imec, has created a new class of medical device that are miniaturized to be easily transported and, more importantly, can run off of body heat and sunlight, and the devices prototyped already include an electroencephalograph (EEG) for monitoring brain waves and an electrocardiograph (ECG) for measuring heartbeats. Both machines use energy efficient parts, and can function in even the most remote conditions -- as long as there is enough of both energy sources.
The key to making the devices work is advancement in efficient thermopiles -- arrays of thermocouples that create electricity from heat -- and miniature solar panels. Combining the two energy sources was important for Leonov because with just one or the other, there isn't enough power generated. But when harvesting energy from both, there is enough to run the machines.
The cost of producing the equipment is still a barrier to their production, but the hard work is already done. Now it's just a matter of improving the technology price-wise, delivering it, and developing other medical machines that can run off these two reliable off-grid energy sources.
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