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Swiss Study Says Solar Pacemaker Feasible

1/13/17 8:39 AM

Solar energy has long been seen as a clean, readily available fuel source with the potential to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and other pollutants. Now that solar panels are a common sight on rooftops and along the side of highways, some medical researchers believe it's time to take the next step: putting solar cells inside the human body. While such a procedure may sound like something from the realm of science fiction, a research team led by Lukas Bereuter of Bern University in Switzerland recently completed a study that determined it is feasible to power a cardiac pacemaker using a subcutaneous (under skin) implanted solar cell.

Current pacemakers rely on a battery pack, which is typically implanted under a patient's skin on their chest. These batteries wear out from use, however, and need to be replaced anywhere between every three to fifteen years. Each one of these battery replacements currently requires an additional invasive surgery, increasing patient risks, recovery times and healthcare costs. Ideally, a solar cell could be implanted through a minimally-invasive procedure and power a pacemaker for the rest of a patient's life.

The Bern University study was carried out over a six month period using a team of 32 Swiss volunteers. Each was equipped with an armband that included a 3.6 square centimeter (about 1.4 square inches) solar cell covered by a membrane that simulated the thickness and opacity of human skin. Each volunteer was asked to wear the armband all day throughout their normal activities for one week during the summer, one week in autumn and finally a week in the winter. This gave researchers a sense of how much power the solar cells generated during different weather conditions.

The results of the study were a roaring success. Powering a pacemaker requires between five and ten microwatts, and no solar cell in the study ever generated fewer than 12 microwatts on any given day, regardless of season or weather. Researchers found that both natural sunlight and artificial indoor light were able to energize the armband-mounted cells, meaning that even couch potato pacemaker patients would be able to power their device.

In spite of these promising results, your doctor won't be recommending a solar pacemaker for several more years. The next step is for researchers to reduce the size of the cell even further. Ideally, the device should be scaled down so that it can be placed unobtrusively in a patient's neck. While this may sound a bit grisly at first, the neck is not frequently covered by clothing and therefore the part of the body most likely to be exposed to light at any given time.

MadgeTech, the New Hampshire data logging company, supports innovations in medicine and solar technology with a wide range of temperature, humidity, pressure, voltage and current loggers. MadgeTech is proud to facilitate the development of new technologies by offering precise measurement, validation, and verification.

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