How electric eels inspired the first batteries 200 years ago

Copy the eel’s electric organ

Before Volta’s batteries, the only way people could generate electricity was by rubbing various materials together, typically silk, on glass, and capturing the resulting static electricity. This was not an easy or practical way to generate useful power.

Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

Volta knew that electric fish had internal organs that were used to generate electricity. if he could imitate that works, he may be able to find new ways to generate electricity. The fish’s electrical organs are made up of long piles of cells that look like a bunch of coins. So Volta cut coin-shaped disks from sheets of various materials and started stacking them in different orders to see if they could find a combination that could produce electricity. These stacking experiments continued to yield negative results until he paired the copper disks with the zinc disks, and separated the stacked pairs with paper disks soaked in seawater.

This sequence of copper-zinc-paper accidentally produced electricity, and the electrical output was proportional to the height of the stack. Volta first called his discovery an “artificial electric organ” because he discovered the secrets of how eels generate electricity and thought he had actually created an artificial version of a fish’s electric organ. But it wasn’t.

What makes eel so thrilling

Scientists now know. electrochemical reaction The disparate matter Volta discovered had nothing to do with the way electric eels generate electricity. Rather, eels use an approach similar to the way our nerve cells generate electrical signals, but on a much larger scale.

Special cells within the eel’s electrical organs pump ions across the semipermeable membrane barrier, creating a charge differential between the inside and outside of the membrane. When the membrane’s microscopic gates open, ions flow rapidly from one side of the membrane to the other, creating an electrical current. eel can do Open all membrane gates at the same time. It creates a massive electric shock at will and releases it in a targeted manner at its prey.

Electric eels do not shock their prey to death. they just electrically stunned before attack. An eel can generate hundreds of volts of electricity (110 volts in an American household outlet), but the eel’s voltage doesn’t supply enough current (amperes) to kill a person for a long enough time. Each electric pulse in an eel lasts only 1/2000 of a second and delivers less than 1 ampere. This is only 5% of household amps.

This is similar to how electric fences work, providing very short high voltage pulses of electricity, but at very low amps. So they shock but do not kill bears or other animal intruders trying to get through them. It is similar to modern times. taser stun weaponIt works by rapidly delivering very high voltage pulses (about 50,000 volts) that deliver very low amps (only a few milliamps).

A modern attempt to imitate an eel

Like Volta, some modern electrical scientists looking to innovate in battery technology find their inspiration in electric eels.

A team of scientists from the United States and Switzerland is currently A new type of battery operation inspired by eels. They think soft, flexible batteries will one day be useful for internally powering medical implants and soft robots. But the team admits they have a long way to go. “The eel’s electrical organs are incredibly sophisticated. They are much better at generating electricity than we are,” lamented. Michael Mayer, a member of the University of Friborg. So eel research continues.

In 2019, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists. Lithium-ion battery development. In awarding the prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences declared that the work of the winners “Laying the foundation for a wireless, fossil fuel-free society.”

The “wireless” part is certainly true, as lithium-ion batteries now power almost all portable wireless devices. Today’s lithium-ion batteries are often recharged with electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, so we’ll have to wait a bit more for the claim of a “fossil fuel-free society”. No mention was made of the contribution of electric eels.

However, later that same year, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution announced: New species of South American electric eel discovered; This is especially the bioelectric generator known to be the most powerful on the planet. The researchers recorded a single eel discharge at 860 volts, a figure far higher than the previous record-keeping eel species. Electroporus ElectrocusIt is clocked at 650 volts and is 200 times higher than the highest voltage of a single Li-Ion battery (4.2 volts).

Just as we humans are about to celebrate the greatness of the latest portable energy sources, electric eels continue to humble us.

Timothy J. Jorgenson Director of the Graduate Program in Health Physics and Radiation Protection and Professor of Radiological Medicine at Georgetown University.

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