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Physics researchers discover potential to produce electricity from tears

02.10.2017

A group of Limerick-based scientists has discovered how to generate electricity from human tears, saliva, and milk.

It’s hoped the discovery by the University of Limerick (UL) research team may ultimately provide an alternative method of controlling the release of drugs into the body. Conventional biomedical devices feature energy harvesters containing toxic elements such as lead.

The research team, based at the Bernal Institute, UL, discovered how to produce electricity by applying pressure to a protein, called lysozyme, found in the egg whites of birds, as well as in the tears, saliva and milk of mammals.

The findings are published today in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

 

Direct piezoelectricity is already found in materials in mobile phones, deep ocean sonars, ultrasound imaging, bone, tendon and wood, but the capacity to generate electricity through the phenomenon had not been explored, until now.

The discovery may have wide-reaching applications and could lead to further research in the area of energy-harvesting and flexible electronics for biomedical devices. File photograph: Getty Images

Tippeary scientist and lead author of the research findings,Aimee Stapleton described the extent of the piezoelectricity in lysozyme crystals as “significant”. “Crystals of lysozyme are easy to make from natural sources,” she added.

Prof Tewfik Soulimane, report co-author, said although the protein’s structure has been known about since 1965, “we are the first to use these crystals to show the evidence of piezoelectricity”.

 

Wide-reaching applications

The discovery may have wide-reaching applications and could lead to further research in the area of energy-harvesting and flexible electronics for biomedical devices.

Future applications of the discovery may include controlling the release of drugs in the body by using lysozyme as a physiologically mediated pump that scavenges energy from its surroundings.

Prof Luuk van der Wielen, director of the Bernal Institute and Bernal professor of biosystems engineering and design, expressed his delight at the breakthrough.

“The Bernal Institute has the ambition to impact the world on the basis of top science in an increasingly international context. The impact of this discovery in the field of biological piezoelectricity will be huge and Bernal scientists are leading from the front the progress in this field,” he added.

Irish Times article 2nd October 2017