Models of Eel Cells Suggest Electrifying Possibilities

27 October 2008

Models of Eel Cells Suggest Electrifying Possibilities

Electric Eel Photo: Stan Shebs

The biggest electric eels can produce charges up to 600 watts of electricity. This is enough to power your computer, monitor, printer and office lighting simultaneously in a short burst. Nature bats last, and researchers at Yale University working with US National Insititute of Standards and Technology are applying eel power to artificially created cells. This is the new science of cell biology. “Artificial versions of the eel's electricity generating cells could be developed as a power source for medical implants and other tiny devices,” the researchers say.

Credit: Daniel Zukowski, Yale University

In a similar way to nerve cells, Electric Eel cells can send up to 600 volts. A chemical signal triggers the opening of highly selective channels in a cell membrane causing sodium ions to flow in and potassium ions to flow out, thus creating an electric pulse thorough the cell. Alternate paths then pump the ions back to their resting state.

Researchers Lavan and Jian Xu developed a complex numerical model to test and optimise the system. Their calculations show it is possible to “improve on nature”. The individual cells can generate 40% more energy, and others could produce peak power outputs of over 28 percent. Artificial eel cells could power such small devices such as implants – for example a heart pacemaker. Though this is somewhat far-fetched science, it could still generate a breakthrough.

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