A bacteria-powered origami battery that could help beat disease

A new origami paper battery, which is powered by bacteria and costs five US cents (3p), could revolutionise the diagnosis of diseases in developing and remote areas

Researchers at Binghamton University in New York have developed the battery at a proof of concept level and are hoping it could be on the market for doctors and medics within three years.

The battery is made from standard office paper with a nickel-based cathode on one side and carbon paint anode on the other. The team used the ancient Japanese art of origami, or paper-folding, to fold the battery down to the size of a matchbox.

Bacteria from a single drop of dirty water are fed into the battery where their respiration could potentially generate microwatts of energy – enough to power a paper-based biosensor used for diagnosing diseases.

Professor Seokheun Choi, an expert in bioelectronics at Binghamton University who led the research, told Newsweek: “I want my paper-based biobatteries to be used in resource-limited regions. Dirty water can be a source to derive [energy for] my battery to power other types of electronics, like paper-based biosensors.”

The use of paper-based tools for disease diagnosis are growing in popularity due to their extremely cheap production costs and transportable nature. However, existing paper biosensors generally need external power sources or to be paired with sophisticated electronic devices.

“I want my paper-based biobatteries to be used in resource-limited regions.”

Researchers at Florida Atlantic and Stanford universities recently developed paper and plastic strips costing less than $1 (63p), which could test for HIV. However, a smartphone camera was needed to capture the results and send them off for diagnosis.

Choi’s ambition is to develop a fully paper-based biosensing system, which is powered by the paper battery and uses paper substrates to test for and detect diseases, without the need for smartphones or other tools. He has received a $300,000 (€190,000) grant from the US government’s National Science Foundation to pursue his research.

He hopes this development could revolutionise healthcare in developing countries, providing quick and cheap disease diagnosis and potentially saving thousands of lives. Diagnosis can be prohibitively expensive at present. Tests for the Ebola virus, which killed more than 10,000 people in west Africa in a recent outbreak, can cost up to $100 (£63) and take hours to produce a result.

The use of origami was a novel idea proposed by Choi, who says the ancient folding techniques allows several batteries to be linked together efficiently and a greater power output to be generated. The battery is unfolded when in use, increasing its surface area exponentially and thereby increasing the energy produced by the respiring bacteria.

“One individual battery is not enough to power the external applications, so we needed to connect several batteries in series or in parallel to increase power. Stacking several batteries is not efficient, so I brought these origami technologies to [the research]. By folding the papers, we can stack them very efficiently,” he says.

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Though the batteries cost the equivalent of five US cents (3p) to produce, Choi says he is working to reduce the costs further in order to make the batteries more widely available. He is also attempting to boost the energy produced by the batteries, which is currently at the nanowatt level.

Paper batteries have been around for several years, but the benefits of such batteries, which are cheap, easy to produce and biodegradable, means they could provide a more sustainable alternative to conventional batteries.

First published by Newsweek