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Scientists research electric eels for new battery technology

This article is automatically translated from the original language to your language. Do not hesitate to let us know if it contains translation errors so that we can correct them as soon as possible.

As global demand for large amounts of portable power grows at an ever-increasing rate, many innovators have sought to replace current battery technology with something better.

Italian physicist Alessandro Volta exploited the basic principles of electrochemistry when he invented the first battery in 1800. Basically, the physical combination of two different materials, usually metals, produces a chemical reaction that results in the flux electrons from one material to another. This flow of electrons represents cellular energy that can be harnessed to generate power.

The first materials used by humans to make batteries were copper and zinc. The best batteries available today – those that produce the highest electrical power in the smallest possible size – combine lithium metal with one of many different metal compounds. There have been constant improvements over the centuries, but modern batteries are based on a strategy similar to Volta’s: the matching of materials can induce an electrochemical reaction and shake off the resulting electrons.

But as I describe in my book Sparks: the life of electricity and the current of lifeEven before man-made batteries began generating electricity, electric fish, such as saltwater torpedo fish (torpedo torpedo) from the Mediterranean and in particular the various freshwater electric eels from South America (order Gymnotiformes) is famous for producing power outputs of astonishing proportions. In fact, electric fish inspired Volta to conduct the original research that ultimately led to his batteries, and battery scientists are still researching these electric animals today. to look for ideas.

Alessandro Volta presents his battery to Napoleon.


Before Volta’s batteries, the only way people generated electricity was by rubbing different materials together, usually silk on glass, and picking up static electricity. It is not an easy and convenient way to generate useful electrical energy.

Volta knew that electric fish had a special internal organ used to generate electricity. He felt that if he could imitate its operation, he might be able to find a new way to generate electricity.

The fish’s electrical organ is made up of long, stacked cells that look a lot like a roll of coins. So Volta cut out coin-shaped plates from different sheets of material and started stacking them, in different sequences, to see if he could come up with any possible combinations. produce electricity or not. These stacking experiments continued to yield negative results until he tried to pair copper plates with zinc plates, while separating the stacked pairs with a paper plate moistened with water salty.

This copper-zinc paper string generates electricity by accident, and the output power corresponds to the height of the pile. Volta thought he had discovered the secret of how eels generate electricity and had actually created an artificial version of the fish’s electrical organs, so he first called his discovery “mechanics”. . artificial power plant”. But it’s not.

Scientists now know that the electrochemical reactions between the different materials discovered by Volta have nothing to do with how an electric eel generates its electricity. Instead, eels use a similar approach to how our neurons generate electrical signals, but on a much larger scale.

Specialized cells in the electrical organ of the eel pump ions across the barrier of the semi-permeable membrane to create a charge difference between the inside and the outside of the membrane. When the membrane’s microscopic gates open, the rapid flow of ions from one side of the membrane induces an electric current. The eel can simultaneously open all of its membrane gates at will to create an extremely large electrical flux, which it ejects in a targeted manner at its prey.

Electric eels do not shock their prey to death; they stun him just before attacking. An eel can generate hundreds of volts (110 volts in a US household outlet), but the eel’s voltage does not push enough current (amperage), for long enough, to kill. Each electrical impulse from an eel lasts only a few milliseconds and transmits less than 1 amp. This represents only 5% of the amperage of the house.

This is similar to the operation of electric fences, providing very short pulses of high voltage, but with very low amperage. Therefore, they shock but do not kill bears or other intruding animals that attempt to outrun them. It is similar to modern Taser electrocution weapons, which work by rapidly delivering an extremely high voltage pulse (about 50,000 volts) carrying very low amperage (a few milliamps only).

Like Volta, several modern electricians seeking to transform battery technology have found inspiration in electric eels.

A team of scientists from the United States and Switzerland are currently working on a new eel-inspired battery. They envision that their soft, flexible battery could one day be useful for internally powering medical implants and soft robots. But the team admits it still has a long way to go. “The eel’s electrical organs are incredibly delicate; Michael Mayer, a team member from the University of Freiburg, lamented. Thus, research on eels continues.

In 2019, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists who developed lithium-ion batteries. In presenting the prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences claimed that the work of the winners had “laid the foundations for a wireless and fossil-free society”.

The “cordless” part is certainly true, as lithium-ion batteries now power virtually all portable wireless devices. We will have to wait and see the claim of a “fossil fuel free society” as today’s lithium-ion batteries are recharged with electricity typically generated by burning fossil fuels. No mention of the contribution of electric eels.

However, later that year, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution announced the discovery of a new species of South American electric eel; These include the most powerful known bioelectric generator on Earth. The researchers recorded the discharge of a single eel at 860 volts, far greater than the discharge of the previous record-holding eel, Electric electrophorerated at 650 volts and is 200 times higher than the peak voltage of a lithium-ion battery (4.2 volts).

Just as we humans try to congratulate ourselves on the awesomeness of our latest portable power source, electric eels continue to humiliate us with them.

Timothy J. Jorgensen is Director of the Graduate Program in Health Physics and Radiation Protection and Professor of Radiation Medicine at Georgetown University. Scientists search for electric eels for new battery technology

This article is automatically translated from the original language to your language. Do not hesitate to let us know if it contains translation errors so that we can correct them as soon as possible.

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