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An origami battery that generates power from bacteria

Posted June 16, 2015

An engineer at Binghamton University has created a flexible, origami-style battery. Not only its appearance, but also its mechanism is innovative and interesting as it is powered by bacteria. Furthermore, it is extremely inexpensive and simple to make, which makes it a very attractive product for industrial application. However, scientists say it is mostly useful for people who work in remote areas with limited resources.

A battery that can create energy from a drop of bacteria-containing liquid is already a fantastic achievement, but this one is also printed on paper and only costs 5 cents. Photo courtesy: Jonathan Cohen/

A battery that can create energy from a drop of bacteria-containing liquid is already a fantastic achievement, but this one is also printed on paper and only costs 5 cents. Photo courtesy: Jonathan Cohen/

Origami is usually imagined as an art form to create paper shapes of birds, turtles or even more original small sculptures. It is rarely imagined as something scientists would be interested in. But now Seokheun “Sean” Choi, engineer from Binghamton University, has developed an inexpensive, bacteria-powered battery made from paper. Just like origami sculptures.

This device is not a conventional battery we all know and use. It generates power from microbial respiration. To explain simply, it extracts power from bacteria – the process delivers enough energy to run a paper-based biosensor with nothing more than a drop of bacteria-containing liquid. The inventor himself said that “any type of organic material can be the source of bacteria for the bacterial metabolism”. This is great news, because even simple dirty water has a lot of organic matter.

Ability to generate small amounts of power from bacteria is very appealing for anyone working in remote areas. Because it is based on paper, it is very cheap too. Paper is cheap and readily available material, which has interested scientists trying to invent diagnostic tools for the developing world. However, even though there were successful attempts to create such diagnostic tools from paper, for analysis they have to be connected to hand-held devices. Scientists hope that these new batteries would eliminate such need.

Seokheun Choi has envisioned a self-powered system in which a paper-based battery would create enough energy to run the biosensor. Such sensors do not require a lot of power – few microwatts would be enough. This device would be a great leap forward in cheap medical devices for underdeveloped countries, where simple medical care, which is taken for granted in Western world, could save many lives.

Obviously, when such vision is created, price of the device is the most important factor. This paper battery costs around 5 U. S. dollar cents. Only 5 cents costing device that is so innovative that can produce power from dirty water would seem as science fiction some time ago, but not it is reality. It is made of simple ordinary office paper – on one side there is inexpensive air-breathing cathode created with nickel sprayed on, on another side the anode is screen printed with carbon paints, creating a hydrophilic zone with wax boundaries. The entire device folds into a square the size of a matchbook, which reminded scientists of origami art. Such approach created an actual “light bulb moment”, when engineer Choi decided to connect four of the devices in series and managed to light up a small LED.

This just once again proves that science creates very small yet very important devices. Such simple and cost effective device could change how we look at batteries for variety of different sensors. Paper is biodegradable material, which is so cheap and common it will find more uses in developing world. However, more research will have to be done until the origami battery will find its practical application.


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