The pacemaker that's powered by your own heartbeat

The Week's Editorial Staff
The Week
Researchers are working on developing a state-of-the-art pacemaker, using technology that's found in things like contact microphones.

Scientists are developing a device that allows a debilitated heart to create its own electricity — to help the organ beat normally again

Michigan University researchers are developing a perpetual, self-powered pacemaker that could drastically improve the lives of patients living with heart problems. The device, which is still in development, harnesses the kinetic energy from a heartbeat to power itself. Here, a brief guide to how it works:

How does this new self-powering technology work?
It uses piezoelectricity, which literally means "pressure electricity," says Sebastian Anthony at ExtremeTech. Piezoelectricity is generated when the special materials inside a device are "deformed by an external force," meaning vibrations or applied pressure can be used to create power. In this case, the heart's own contractions are used to generate electricity for the pacemaker, which in turn is used to help the heart pump regularly.

How much energy would this pacemaker produce?
Not very much — perhaps tens of milliwatts — but the good thing is, pacemakers don't require very much energy to drum on at all.

Why haven't I heard of piezoelectricity before?
It's not exactly a new thing, but you might hear it mentioned with more regularity in the near future. Piezoelectric technology is already used discreetly in devices like contact microphones to better detect audio vibrations. And scientists are optimistic about its applications in other areas of everyday life, like building a virtual energy generator into your shoes, for example, that could be used to power things such as cell phones. 

What advantages does a self-powering pacemaker offer?
The idea of someone's abnormally beating heart powering its own pacemaker might seem like "a terrible idea," says David Zax at Technology Review. But look at it this way: Patients equipped with pacemakers need to undergo battery-replacement surgery every couple of years; this technology, which is smaller than current batteries, could potentially bring risky follow-up procedures to an end. "Many patients are children who live with pacemakers for many years," says researcher Dr. Amin Karami. "You can imagine how many operations they are spared if this new technology is implemented."

How far along is the development process?
Not very far. The device's designers have only tested it on simulated heartbeats. The next step is to test it on a real, beating heart muscle. 

Sources: The Engineer, ExtremeTechGizmag, Technology Review

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