CMU team develops yummy-for-tummy test: Edible battery

Debra Erdley
| Friday, April 19, 2013, 11:55 p.m.

Cherry-flavored batteries someday could be the stuff of life-saving medical devices.

At least that's the hope of Carnegie Mellon University researchers who have developed an edible battery.

Christopher Bettinger, an assistant professor in the Departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at CMU, is heading a team of researchers working on the new device.

Bettinger isn't talking flavor just yet, but the battery could deliver tiny medical devices taken orally to the small intestines and activated via electrical charge.

Camera pills — tiny, single-use cameras that take pictures of the gastrointestinal tract and pass through the body — have been around for years.

Bettinger said the edible battery takes the concept to a new stage. It features a biodegradable capsule that contains a flexible polymer and a sodium ion electrochemical cell that can integrate harmlessly with human tissue.

“I could eat this today,” he said, grinning at a functional model of the edible battery in a Petri dish in a CMU laboratory.

Bettinger, who has been working on the project for about 18 months, joined forces with engineering post-doctoral fellow Young Jo Kim and Jay Whitacre, the CMU professor who developed a saltwater battery. They aim to perfect what they hope will become a foundation for a whole new generation of medical interventions called electrocueticals.

Bettinger's team is only beginning to work with physicians to determine specific applications.

“There are a couple of specific applications that I can't talk about, but there are still a lot of challenges. We're at generation zero, looking at other devices and geometries. We're not at an end point by any means, but rather looking in a new direction,” he said.

He estimated that it might take five to 10 years of work before the edible battery would clear Food and Drug Administration standards for marketing as a medical device.

The battery, though, already is getting rave reviews from Innovation Works — a quasi-public, high-tech incubator that provides seed-stage capital and business expertise for promising new technologies in Western Pennsylvania.

Hazelwood-based Innovation Works has provided grant money and business development advice to the project. Larry Miller, Innovation Works life-sciences executive in residence, could not provide the amount of the grant.

Medical devices face a high bar for success, he said.

“If you can't do something twice as good as the existing standard of care at half the cost, you don't have much chance of success,” Miller said. “Chris is doing a nice job, both from proof of concept of the technology to reaching out to the marketplace.”

Miller speculated that the device could be used to tackle obesity.

“And if we find a way to do that non-invasively, well that‘s terrific,” he said.

Bettinger said the battery appears on track to clear FDA testing in perhaps the next four years.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. she can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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