(New Scientist) Life-saving medical implants like pacemakers and defibrillators face a big drawback: their batteries eventually run out. So every few years, patients need surgery to have the batteries replaced. Now a company in New York state is planning to tackle the problem by providing patients with an implantable power source that recharges their implant’s batteries using electricity generated by the patient’s own body heat.

By continuously recharging the batteries, it saves the patient from frequent surgery. In some low power devices, it could even replace the batteries altogether, making such operations unnecessary.

The “biothermal battery” under development by Biophan Technologies of West Henrietta, will generate electricity using arrays of thousands of thermoelectric generators built into an implantable chip. These generators exploit the well-known thermocouple effect, in which a small voltage is generated when two of the junctions between two dissimilar materials are kept at different temperatures.

But Biophan is going to need a large number of thermocouples to generate the power it needs. In the past, stacks of perhaps tens of thermocouples have been used in some temperature sensors, but no-one has tried to build thousands of them into one device, as Biophan will need to.

The company’s chief executive Michael Wiener is confident his engineers can build thermocouples just tens of micrometres across to do the job, using unspecified microchip manufacturing technologies.

Figure of merit

For the biothermal device to work it needs a 2 ?C temperature difference across it. But there are many parts of the body where a temperature difference of as much as 5 ?C is available – typically in the few millimetres just below the skin. This is where Biophan plans to place the device, says spokesman Stuart MacDonald.

Biophan’s generators will use thermocouples made of the semiconductor bismuth telluride. The material is doped with impurities that give one side of the thermocouple an abundance of electrons – it will be negative, or n-type – while the other side will contain impurities lacking electrons (positive, or p-type).

The overall effect of this construction is to create a thermocouple with a much higher “figure of merit” than a metal-based one, generating higher voltages for a given temperature difference across the thermoelectric device.

But each thermocouple will still only generate a few microvolts for each 1 ?C of temperature difference. To obtain a useful voltage it is necessary to arrange thousands of units in series. Biophan plans to produce an array 2.5 centimetres square that generates 4 volts and delivers a power of 100 microwatts.

Trickle charge

Today’s pacemaker batteries last for more than a decade before they need replacing. Biophan says the device it is aiming for will be able extend this to three decades by continuously trickle-charging pacemaker batteries. It might even be able to power some low power pacemakers directly.

This is an ambitious goal, according to Mike Rowe, an expert in thermoelectric generation at Cardiff University in the UK. He says he doubts whether Biophan can extract the power it is aiming for from such a small cross-sectional area of the body.

But MacDonald is confident the microchip making techniques Biophan plans to use will succeed. It is a challenge, he says, but not an insurmountable one.

Tim Bowker of the British Heart Foundation welcomes the prospect of such a technology. Anything that means patients need fewer surgical procedures, which are stressful and carry the risk of infection, will be more than welcome, he says.