Harnessing power of tears could be new answer to produce electricity

4 Oct 2017

Image: ziggy_mars/Shutterstock

Tears could be no longer just an expression of emotion, but a source for energy production in the pharma sector.

Researchers from the Bernal Institute at University of Limerick have uncovered a new way to make electricity thanks to a protein found both in our tears and egg whites.

In a paper published to the journal Applied Physical Letters, the team led by Aimee Stapleton revealed that when the protein lysozyme has pressure applied to it, it generates electricity.

This process is known as direct piezoelectricity and is a property of materials, such as quartz, that can convert mechanical energy into electrical energy and vice versa.

This process is well known within science and already such materials are used in a variety of applications such as in resonators, vibrators in mobile phones, deep ocean sonars and ultrasound imaging.

However, producing electricity from this particular protein had not been explored before by science and because it is abundant in the natural world, it could prove incredibly useful in medical applications where its non-toxic nature would be crucial.

Thankfully, crystals of lysozymes are easy to produce due to their prevalence. Their structure was identified as far back as 1965 – the first enzyme structure ever solved by science.

Great for biomedical devices

“Crystals are the gold standard for measuring piezoelectricity in non-biological materials,” said the study’s co-author Prof Tofail Syed.

“Our team has shown that the same approach can be taken in understanding this effect in biology. This is a new approach as scientists so far have tried to understand piezoelectricity in biology using complex hierarchical structures such as tissues, cells or polypeptides rather than investigating simpler fundamental building blocks.”

The discovery may have wide-reaching applications and could lead to further research into energy harvesting and flexible electronics for biomedical devices, the team added.

Future applications of the discovery may include controlling the release of drugs in the body by using lysozyme as a physiologically mediated pump that scavenges energy from its surroundings.

This news follows on from a coincidental discovery that, with the addition of hydrogen peroxide, egg whites can also be harnessed to produce advanced transparent flexible electronic devices.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic